CRF Blog

Politics And Prose

by Bill Hayes

In Politics And Prose for the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg reviews Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary.

Throughout his adult life, Pat Moynihan was part of so many different and opposing worlds that having it both ways was almost a way of life for him, for good and for ill. He was a streetwise Irish lad shining shoes for dimes in Times Square who adopted the vocabulary (“perforce,” “at all events,” “of a sudden”) and tweedy wardrobe of a dandified Oxford don. He was an occasionally observant if less than pious Catholic who became part of that circle of secular, mostly Jewish New York intellectuals whose style of thought and expression, if not their current politics, was rooted in the polemics of the kind of exotic Marxist radicalisms that never tempted him. He was a cradle-to-grave Democrat who held his highest appointive offices in Republican administrations. Within the Democratic Party, he had the id of a regular and the superego of a reformer. He was a conservative among liberals and a liberal among conservatives. He was a social scientist who did politics and a politician who did social science. He craved the quiet security of academic life but repeatedly abandoned it for the risks and tumults of public office. It’s not that he was neither here nor there; it’s that he was both.

These tensions and crosscuttings make for a stimulating book, just as they made for an adventurous mind and an eventful life. The tensions were more often creative than crippling. Moynihan’s doubleness was a powerful spur to the originality that marked his thinking on public policy. It was the bedrock of his genuine independence, intellectual and political. He was commonly called a centrist and had no particular objection to the label. But he was no mere splitter of differences. He did not discover his ideas by averaging the distance between the ideas of others. He was more apt to take a leap outside the existing spectrum of choices. “I find myself once more in that pitiable role of the meliorist,” he observed dryly in a 1990 letter to a journalist friend. But, of course, Moynihan’s meliorism had a Moynihan twist. The letter was about his ingenious effort to re-start the stalled debate on gun control by shifting the focus to what comes out of the barrel. “Guns don’t kill people, bullets do” was his summary — the sort of tart coinage he was famous for (“defining deviancy down”; “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts”). His most dizzying leaps had a way of falling short of a safe landing. His audacious Family Assistance Plan of 1969, which would have guaranteed a cash income to the poor as a matter of right, persuaded a Republican President but not a Democratic Congress. In the Senate, his largeness of vision produced no grand piece of landmark legislation; there is no Moynihan equivalent of the Wagner Act. With guns, though, he had a modest success with a modest idea, guiding to passage a ban on so-called cop-killer bullets — “the first law ever to outlaw a round of ammunition,” he noted with satisfaction.

Originality and independence were one side of Moynihan’s doubleness; the other was the way it invited mistrust and misunderstanding, the consequences of which, to judge from the letters, preoccupied him increasingly over time. A volatile, Jekyll-Hyde dynamic lights up “A Portrait in Letters” like the poles of a battery. Especially when two phenomena — Nixon and, later, neoconservatism — enter the picture, the sparks fly.

The Nixon years were Moynihan’s apotheosis as a flatterer. In 1968, he campaigned for Robert Kennedy and endorsed Hubert Humphrey, but he began to “reach out” (a phrase he would have despised) to their nemesis months before the nominating conventions. With the election a week away — and three weeks after admonishing a top aide to President Johnson to “have no fear” that he would accept a job with the enemy — he writes a Heepish letter. “Dear Mr. Nixon: I was greatly impressed by your radio address on the subject of employment. . . .” Once ensconced in the victor’s White House as Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs, he unleashed a stream of memorandums that played his new boss — whose aspirational insecurities, base resentments, and longing to flummox the critics he well understood — like a Stradivarius. [more]