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Daniel Patrick Moynihan: Ruling Class Hero

How the diplomat turned 1976 New York Senate contender became a credit to his race

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

American sociologist and politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan stands at a microphone smiling, 1976.

Agence France Presse/Getty

Norman Podhoretz had done us all a service by pointing to the unvarying political content of the proclamation of impending doom. The person making such a statement is asking that power someone else has be given to him or her.Daniel Patrick Moynihan in Coping.

On the last day Daniel Patrick Moynihan actively served his country as ambassador to the United Nations, I stepped onto the floor of the Security Council (for I thought that was what his secretary had instructed me to do), walked past the chattering Chinese delegation in their beautifully tailored uniforms of black and gray, planted myself some three yards distant from the Honorable DPM and waited to catch his eye. Moynihan was busy overwhelming the Somali ambassador with charm; now he had his arm around the dapper little man, now he was using both arms to make sweeping Wagnerian gestures. Moynihan roared away; the Somali smiled and nodded. When at last it was time for the session to start, Moynihan headed for his seat at the head of the big horseshoe table and I stepped into his path to introduce myself. He put on an expression of alarm. “I’ve got to get you out of here!” he said, taking me by the arm. “My God, I thought you were the Bulgarian!” He ushered me to one of the side entrances of the Council room. “See that guy across the way, standing in the door? That’s Mike Berlin of the New York Post, standing as close to the Security Council as he’s allowed to get.”

“Oh,” I said, “nobody told me.”

“No, no, no,” said Moynihan, jollying up. “That’s all right. You could pass for a Bulgarian.” He turned and looked back into the room. “Well, the Ethiopians have just come in so we’ll have to start. Maybe we could meet afterwards for a beer.” He began to back away. “I’m president of the Security Council, you know.”

I went up to the empty press section, took a seat and slipped on the headphones. The day’s debate concerned an incident on the border between French Somaliland and Somalia (the Somali Republic). Somali terrorists had seized a busload of French schoolchildren; the French authorities eventually called in sharpshooters to pick off the terrorists; now the Somali government was accusing the Frenchmen of picking off a large number of innocent Somalis as well. I followed the proceedings sporadically, since my mind was occupied with trying to decide just how insulting it was to be called a Bulgarian — probably some subtle professional variation on the common Polack joke.

The French ambassador was stating his case in a Comédie Française accent smooth as Mouton-Lafite, claiming that the legionnaires had opened fire only after a machine gun started firing from the Somali side of the border. I twiddled the dial and listened to him in Chinese. Moynihan, sprawled in his seat, yawned, drummed the desk with his pencil, yawned again. The representative from Somalia launched a counterattack in fractured English and handed out stacks of photographs taken at the scene of the skirmish. Moynihan riffled through his stack, threw up his arms and shook his head. Several minutes later, a UN guard tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a package. It was the photographs, with a note written in Moynihan’s own scrawl: “You are something of an authority on buses — herewith examples of those which ply the North East Coast of Africa.” It was Patrick, the Irish pol, missing not a trick and signaling that I should prepare to be charmed — for his allusion was to my book, The Boys on the Bus, which I had sent him as a calling card. The debate began to peter out and finally I heard Moynihan announce, “The luncheon hour has arrived with its magical effect upon the members.”

The ambassador led me through a pair of glass doors, around a corner, and we were in the Security Council bar, where so much of the really important business is conducted. He ordered two Heinekens and insisted on paying. “This is my bar,” he said. At 49 Moynihan was a whale of a man, heavier than I would have guessed, and his face was livid with broken veins of maroon and blue, like the threads in a dollar bill. He wore a charcoal gray Saville Row suit, cut square, with no vent and narrow lapels — the style went out about the time of Suez. As late as 1967, Moynihan was known to carry his handkerchief up his sleeve, in the English manner, but now he had his white shower carelessly planted in his breast pocket. His eyes were glazed, and bristling away on his upper lip, just off center, was a patch of hair that the razor had missed. He also gave off a distinct odor — pungent, gamy, not the odor of Dial. (“It is the height of anglophilia,” a Moynihan acquaintance later told me. “In imitation of the British aristocracy, he bathes infrequently.”)

“This is a very interesting situation,” said Moynihan, referring to the debate. I could not tell whether this was the first line of a lecture or the prelude to a quiz, so I thought it best not to take sides. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s right out of Rashomon.

“No, no,” said Moynihan, “it’s very clear who’s right. Somalia is very clearly right.” He gave a flick of the wrist, motioning me away from two beer-drinking Africans. “Come here, move your stuff down to this end of the bar.” He lowered his voice. “As president of the Council, I’m supposed to maintain a position of absolute neutrality. Here,” he said, flipping through the pile of photographs until he found one of the besieged bus, “look at this.” I stared at it, as dumb as Watson. “Look,” he said, “this is the side of the bus facing the Somali side; there’s not a bullet hole in it!”

From that point on, the conversation strayed all over the map. Moynihan delivered an erudite-sounding lecture on the ironies of decolonization, discussed the virtues of the Irish writer Sean O’Faolain, demonstrated a statistical phenomenon known as “Moynihan’s scissors” (using a cocktail napkin as a blackboard), expounded on the architectural strengths of the General Assembly building and held forth on the more insidious propaganda techniques of Soviet anti-Semitism. It was a masterful performance — and yet I was relieved when he finally departed, because it was exhausting to watch him crank out the famous charm and flog his repertoire of stories once more around the track. At some point in Moynihan’s life, the charm must have been delightfully spontaneous, but now it was stale, forced and all too susceptible to analysis. It breaks down into three components. The first is a display of exaggerated good manners, a device often used by old-style Southern politicians. The second is a flaunting of arcane knowledge, which leaves the listener feeling dazzled, edified and cowed. Along with this goes the tacit suggestion that you, the listener, are one of the few people bright enough to grasp the complexities that Moynihan is unreeling. (“You are a smart fellow actually,” Moynihan said at one point, in a tone of surprised delight.)

Which brings us to the third and most important component of the Moynihan charm: flattery, pure and shameless. That the flattery is crudely obvious doesn’t matter. As George Bernard Shaw used to say: “What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering.”

In the course of his career, Pat Moynihan has found a great many men worth flattering, especially pundits, governors and presidents. He practiced the art of the bureaucrat-courtier through four successive administrations, gaining more power from each new president. The bureaucratic route to power suited him better than the electoral way, for he is an intellectual snob at heart and dislikes wasting his flattery on people he does not find interesting. The tedious process of building up an organization, sucking up to double-knit campaign contributors and dining on chicken with small-time politicos makes him crazy with boredom and goes against the sizable portion of his makeup that is manic, impulsive and lacking in self-control. He has a brutal flair for antagonizing potential supporters who rub him the wrong way, and a streak of perverse pride prompts him to hide certain incidents in his life which might help his image. (As a student at Tufts, he went out of his way to room with a black man whom his classmates refused to live with. Had he revealed this story, it might have softened the antagonism blacks feel toward him on account of his “benign neglect” memo — a 1970 memorandum to Richard Nixon which recommended “benign neglect” of the racial issue, but was widely misinterpreted as a suggestion to ignore the problems of blacks. The only people who know the roommate story are a few Tufts graduates; Moynihan has never told it to anyone, including his wife.)

Yet he is in many ways a natural-born politician, and one of his gifts is so rare and valuable that it nearly offsets his drawbacks. It is the gift of short-term prophecy. When he has had a few drinks, he sometimes brags to his Harvard colleagues that he has a terrific ability to identify a going issue. This may be one of his few understatements. He has spotted many a hot issue — from auto safety to welfare reform — while it was still on the horizon of public consciousness. He has an uncanny sense of precisely what is going to worry people next. Just over a year ago he caught on to a monster of an issue, one so big and bullying that it eventually took over his life and pushed him into politics — the Red/Third World Menace.

The first time he broached this issue, in a Commentary article called “The United States in Opposition,” Moynihan didn’t seem to realize exactly what he had stumbled onto. (This was a year ago last March, when he had just returned from a two-year stint as ambassador to India.) The article said that the Third World nations were wrong when they attacked America for being greedy, exploitative and imperialistic. If all these African and Asian countries were poor, said Moynihan, it was their own fault, because their leaders had insisted on following the tenets of Fabian socialism, as taught at the London School of Economics. With their socialist economies in ruins, the Third World countries were turning against the West and becoming increasingly totalitarian. It was time for the United States to stand up and defend itself, said Moynihan; it was time to sing the praises of capitalist efficiency and liberal democracy.

This analysis was not particularly accurate, but with Third World communism about to humiliate the United States in both Vietnam and Cambodia, Henry Kissinger was so desperately grateful for Moynihan’s feisty voice that he told Gerald Ford to make him our next ambassador to the United Nations. The appointment was handled with dispatch — and Moynihan was sworn in on June 30th, 1975. That very night he attended an AFL-CIO banquet where Alexander Solzhenitsyn let go with an impassioned denunciation of Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente. “There is evil now in the Soviet Union,” said Solzhenitsyn, “and tremendous waves of hatred are flowing from there across the world, and we have to stand up to it — not give in to it.” Henry Kissinger told Gerald Ford not to go to this speech, and he barred all State Department officials from attending. Which did not stop Moynihan, the State Department’s newest official, from sitting at the head table. His nose told him that Kissinger was stuck with a dying policy, while Solzhenitsyn was the voice of the future.

The Solzhenitsyn diatribe was nothing less than an historic event, for it flashed the word to cold warriors that it was finally safe to come out of the bunker. And out they came. The myth of the communist monolith, discredited in the Sixties, made an overnight comeback. The Solzhenitsyn line had an instant appeal to all kinds of groups — to thousands of Americans who still resented our defeat in Vietnam; to trade union leaders who wished to see billions spent on defense factories; to large numbers of American Jews who hated Soviet anti-Semitism and feared the Soviet presence in the Middle East.

None of this was lost on Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He quietly dropped his attack on the Fabian socialists, who could not be accused of anything more serious than economic inefficiency, and started to utter loud cries of alarm against the much sexier threat of “… communist arms, communist intrigue, communist treachery in Asia and Africa.” Using the UN as his platform, Moynihan quickly became the most vocal and best-publicized anti-communist in the country. His basic text was pure Solzhenitsyn, but he improved on it by adding the threat of Third World totalitarianism to that of Soviet domination.

It would be unfair to say that Moynihan was totally opportunistic in jumping on the anti-Red issue, for he did not develop this attitude suddenly. There has often been a hard-line anticommunist bias in his writings and public statements, although it used to be less melodramatic than it is now. In his first major piece of writing, the lengthy chapter on the New York Irish which he contributed to Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), he noted regretfully that after the McCarthy era “the Irish had little to contribute” to the problem of “what to do about communist aggression abroad” and that “the principal area of foreign affairs in which Irish Catholics have so far played a creative anticommunist role has been in the international labor movement under the leadership of an Irish plumber from the Bronx, George Meany of the AFL-CIO …”

Moynihan has an Irish workingman’s enthusiasm for big labor, an attitude which probably goes back to the time when the International Longshoreman’s Association gave him a job on the docks. In 1963, when the Department of Labor sent him to mediate a dispute between the Negro Labor Council and the New York Plumbers Union (AFL-CIO), Moynihan shocked some of his liberal friends by displaying wholehearted sympathy for the union over the two blacks and the Puerto Rican who were fighting to gain membership. So it is not surprising that he embraced George Meany’s stand on communism.

The first time I caught Moynihan’s anticommunist act in public was in January 1976, when he was the featured speaker for the black-tie, patent pumped, wing-collared crowd of Morgan Guaranty types who came out for the annual dinner at the New York Harvard Club. Came out in droves — the affair was sold out twice over because everybody wanted to see Moynihan.

He stood at the front of the dark-paneled, balconied dining hall, a room reminiscent of the House of Commons, and shyly pushed back his forelock. He began speaking with the hesitancy affected by Harvard people — the uhs and stumbles are meant to indicate a humble groping for truth. After some academic gibberish about the meaning of the word “détente,” he went on to describe the three influences which retard “our responses to communist aggression.” The first was a “failure of nerve within the American elites” who got us into Vietnam and then came to grief over that policy. The second was the “superior capacity of Marxist argument to induce guilt” and to seduce us into the mistaken belief that America had exploited the poor countries of the world. The third was the “long-term ideological drift away from liberal democracy” — the decline of the West. This last section of the speech was stunningly depressing, but it turned out to be only a setup for the grand finale.

“Out of the decline of the West, there will, I sense, emerge a rise in spirits,” said Moynihan, his voice growing stronger. “We have shortened our lines. We are under attack. There is nothing in the least in the culture that suggests we will not in the end defend ourselves successfully.”

Now this was not a great speech, at least not to read. Whole sections of it were vague, turgid or even incomprehensible. But the performance was extraordinary. Moynihan has an uncanny talent possessed by no American politician currently on the hustings: he has the ability to project a mood. It is a very specific mood — a kind of London-before-the-blitz feeling combined with the inspired desperation of King Henry’s St. Crispin Day pep talk. He is the poet of the twilight, of the American Götterdämmerung, and his words had an amazing effect on the Harvard Club audience. They went wild, in their own restrained way. Which was strange, because many of them were Wall Street heavies and ought to have been for détente (which enables them to sell American technology to the vast markets provided by the Russians and the Chinese). But they stood and clapped wildly for the speech. The sight of intelligent people applauding ideas that went directly against their own best interests convinced me on the spot that Moynihan had a great future as a politician.

From that moment on, I took seriously the rumor that Moynihan might run for Senate, first in the Democratic primary (September 14th) and then against the conservative Republican incumbent, James Buckley.

So did a number of his friends. At just about this time in January, they started hounding him to enter the race. In this year of political years, when the Democrats seemed certain to take back the White House, their old amigo Moynihan had suddenly established himself as a genuine culture hero. He got 20,000 fan letters every month, and he was the only fresh face in the whole battered legion of cold warriors. So they were all in a frenzy to get a piece of his golden political future. His pals among the Commentary set pleaded, his cronies in the labor movement cajoled and a man who had worked for him in Nixon’s White House flew up from Washington to lay on a game plan for victory. Six more years! But, like many a politician before him, Moynihan could see only the risks. He hesitated.

The day after our chat in the Security Council bar, I saw Moynihan again. The plan was for me to meet him at the United States mission at 11, fly to Boston on the noon flight and lunch with him in Cambridge. But it was not until 11:29 that Moynihan came charging out of the elevator, shouting “Let’s go!,” looking every bit as manic as an RAF ace running for his Spitfire.

We were going up to Harvard, where Moynihan was to teach his class on “Ethnicity in Politics.” Like politicians who retreat to their law practices in times of adversity, Moynihan used Harvard as a base camp, a place from which he could reconnoiter, sniff out new trends and prepare fresh forays into the public arena. The title of Harvard professor was an invaluable asset in government, for it impressed people and allowed Moynihan to argue positions with an air of scholarly objectivity.

I remembered that back in ’71, after Moynihan bowed out of the White House with a final fulsome valedictory to the Chief, he had returned to a distinctly chilly reception from his old colleagues. As punishment for collaborating with the Nixon regime, he was banished to a moldy little office in the attic of a ramshackle frame house on Garden Street, a long walk from the Faculty Club. Humiliation on humiliation, Moynihan did not even have a berth on the faculty of the College; he was merely a professor in the low-status Graduate School of Education. It was like belonging to the Elks when all your friends are in the Jockey Club.

Moynihan didn’t remember it that way. True, his quarters were squalid, he said, “but in that dirty little building I was given a full-time secretary, which is because I was interested in education and they will do that for you.” Then, at the end of the year, he was “made, chosen, brought into” the College faculty as a professor of government. An unusual honor, he assured me.

Like so many of Moynihan’s statements, this one turned out to be not entirely false. What he stinted was the flavor, the essential spirit, of the truth. Far from being “chosen,” like one of God’s elect, to join the government department, Moynihan started campaigning for the job almost as soon as he hit C