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Honorable Man

Daniel Patrick Moynihan seems a throwback to an earlier style of senator, to the flowing locks and florid style, the tailored “toga,” the poses of moral obstruction struck by all those “Bourbon” Southerners who affected plantation manners—men like Theodore Bilbo, Harry Byrd, or Eugene Talmadge, the whole line that has died out or dwindled down to a sole survivor, Robert Byrd. How can a Harvard professor like Moynihan stir memories of such dinosaurs? Well, we have to realize that he was as much an oddity at Harvard as on the Senate floor. Moynihan, who is as hard to place as his accent, has been creatively out of phase with an amazing blur of surroundings.

His life is such a patchwork of incongruous roles and scenes that his biographer has the problem Macaulay was confronted with when he tried to pin down the character of William Pitt: “The public life of Pitt…is a rude though striking piece, a piece abounding in incongruities, a piece without any unity of plan.” But Macaulay thought he had found the single thread to follow through this labyrinth: “[Pitt] was an actor in the Closet, an actor at Council, an actor in Parliament; and even in private society he could not lay aside his theatrical tones and attitudes.”1 Moynihan developed a histrionic flair, as a way of floating above what would otherwise have been a disjointed and chaotic series of experiences. His polished current performance has touches of the machine pol and the pedant, of bonhomous Irish blarney and persnickety English diction, of dry statistics and wet-eyed poetry.

Godfrey Hodgson is well qualified to look for the man behind this flamboyant façade. A British journalist who has written a series of insightful books on American politics, he became Moynihan’s friend in 1962, and no doubt derived some of his insider’s feel for America from long conversations with his present subject. The resulting book is a chummy affair—Moynihan and his wife are Pat and Liz throughout, and the book is dedicated to them. Moynihan gave Hodgson full access to his papers, including the diary notes of his psychotherapy in England. Hodgson has obviously used this material with great tact and concern for his friend’s reputation; but he quietly suggests some of the insecurities and struggles that lie behind the expansive senator’s poses of learned ease and laughing realism. The insecurity was rooted in the chaos of Moynihan’s early family life, which gave him that sense of looming tragedy expressed in his famous comment when John Kennedy was killed: “I guess there’s no point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world will break your heart one day.”

There was much that was heart-breaking in Moynihan’s early years. Legend has him growing up with New York’s tough kids in Hell’s Kitchen—a place he simply visited in his twenties. Actually, he was born (1927) in Oklahoma, and moved with his family to Indiana (Bluffton and Jeffersonville), New Jersey (Ridgefield Park), Long Island (Stewart Manor), and Queens (Crystal Gardens)—all before Moynihan was ten. As that geography suggests, his alcoholic father had a hard time keeping a job, and in 1937 he gave up trying to keep his family. Pat and his younger brother Mike moved about the Upper West Side with their mother, Margaret, who worked to keep them in Catholic school (Holy Name on West 97th Street). This is when Pat and Mike shined shoes around Times Square. When their mother was being courted by the man who would become her second husband, the boys were kept by a relative in Louisville.

In 1940, the family moved to this new husband’s fourteen-room house in Westchester, where Pat attended ninth and tenth grades at Yorktown Heights High School. But this marriage did not last either, and Margaret took the boys for a while to stay with her sister in Indiana. They were back in New York in time for Pat to enter the eleventh grade at Benjamin Franklin High School on 116th Street, and to shine some more shoes. He graduated as class valedictorian in 1942 and entered City College. Thanks to the war, his mother found a good job (as chief nurse in a war production plant), and Pat worked summers as a stevedore on the piers at West 11th Street. In the spring of 1944, Moynihan joined the navy. After officer’s training at Middlebury College in Vermont, he earned his BA in naval science at Tufts, then went to sea as a communications officer for part of 1946 and 1947. By the time he returned to civilian life, his mother had married a third time and was running a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, where he sometimes tended bar while visiting her.

After another year at Tufts working on a master’s degree, Moynihan did two weeks of naval reserve duty in the summer of 1948, then took off with some friends on a feckless attempt to mine gold in Alaska—the 1935 hearse they were driving broke down in Montana, and they had to ride the rails back to Chicago. Returning alone to New York, Moynihan took the foreign service exam and flunked it, but work on his doctorate at Tufts led to a Fulbright scholarship to study trade unionism at the London School of Economics. The stay in England, which he stretched out to three years without getting a degree, gave him a chance to escape the hectic pummeling from place to place that had been his adolescence, and to try on new styles, groping toward an identity. These were years of experimentation, stock-taking, and (for the first time) economic security—he had GI Bill money to supplement his Fulbright pay. He could afford the psychotherapist who suggested that a drunken brawl with police, one that had led to Moynihan’s arrest when he was a graduate student at Tufts, showed his resentment of father figures. Moynihan wrote in his diary, “Maybe!” Unlike his brother Mike, he never sought out his father after being left by him. For both his stepfathers he had nothing but contempt. His note on the first reads “me hating him,” and he called the second “hapless.” He wrote that he was still looking for a mother in his twenties. His stay in England gave him a city to roam, pubs to crawl, working-class and political friends, a string of affairs affording “delicious sex,” visits to Parliament with Sander Vanocur to study debating techniques he would imitate. He became the most anglophile of Irishmen, and saw nothing of his fellow Americans (John Tower, Paul Volcker), or the Canadian Pierre Trudeau, who were at the London School in those years.

Sailing back to America on the Andrea Doria, Moynihan met on the boat a New York politician who introduced him, when they landed, to Jonathan Bingham, an organizer of Robert Wagner’s campaign for mayor of New York. Moynihan became his assistant on that campaign. Then he moved on with Bingham to the governor’s staff of Averell Harriman. As a Harriman protégé, Moynihan developed a taste for dealing with Carmine de Sapio’s New York political machine, and showed early on the contempt he would later express for elite reformers in the Democratic Party. When Nelson Rockefeller was elected governor in 1958, Harriman commissioned Moynihan to write the history of the outgoing administration. While working in the Harriman papers at Syracuse University, Moynihan realized that a doctorate would be useful, and he spent his spare time finishing, rather perfunctorily, his long-abandoned Tufts dissertation on the International Labor Organization. “He had almost wholly lost interest in it,” Hodgson writes. “Indeed, when after their wedding he moved into Liz’s apartment, he left the typescript in the hall to be thrown away until a neighbor persuaded him to save it.” Though the history of Harriman’s governorship was obsequious, it was not sycophantic enough to earn its subject’s approval, so it was suppressed.

Moynihan had a new outlet, however—The Reporter magazine, then edited by Irving Kristol, to which he contributed long articles on public policy. Kristol introduced Moynihan to Nathan Glazer, who was finishing a foundation-supported study of New York ethnics, to which Moynihan contributed a chapter on the Irish (Glazer had already done the blacks, Puerto Ricans, Italians, and Jews). Published as Beyond the Melting Pot under both men’s names, the study gave Moynihan credentials he could use to get a job in the new Kennedy administration. J. Edgar Hoover tried to block his appointment to the Labor Department, since a Moynihan article in The Reporter had criticized the FBI for its failure to address the problem of organized crime. Moynihan submitted to an interview with Hoover’s assistant, C.D. “Deke” DeLoach, who reported to his boss: “Moynihan is an egghead that talks in circles and constantly contradicts himself…. This man is so much up on ‘cloud nine’ it is doubtful that his ego will allow logical interpretation of remarks made to other people.” The head of the Labor Department, Arthur Goldberg, was one of the few men Hoover could not bully—he hired Moynihan over the director’s objections. At last, at age thirty-five, Moynihan was where he wanted to be—in John Kennedy’s Washington.

Though he was part of the Kennedy administration, Moynihan did not know Jack or Bobby socially, though he has artfully suggested that he did—as when he wrote in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding that the Johnson administration denied him access to information because of his “having come to be regarded as a friend of Robert F. Kennedy.”2 Hodgson says Moynihan tried to become acquainted with the Kennedys, visiting the hospital in which Edward Kennedy was recovering from a plane crash. Though Moynihan had incurred back troubles in his Navy days, Hodgson admits that writing to JFK’s back specialist, Dr. Janet Travell, for an appointment looks like “an attempt to join the inner circle around the president.” Though JFK and RFK died before Moynihan could get to know them, he was poised to move up in the Johnson administration, where he made the first of three policy recommendations that were associated with his name for decades. They dealt with black families, black unemployment, and poverty.

The first of these, a background paper for Johnson’s War on Poverty, was written with the help of two staff members, but it became known as the Moynihan Report after knowledge of it became public in 1965. It argued that merely giving welfare to black families was not enough, since they were “a tangle of pathologies” resulting from absentee fathers, out-of-wedlock births, and “matrifocal” child-rearing. This was an arguably defensible (or defensibly arguable) thesis, but discussion of it was crippled from the outset by Moynihan’s gift for the striking phrase. Though he was partly thinking of his own matrifocal upbringing, the phrase “tangle of pathologies” seemed to some blacks to play into racist views of black culture, and blacks struck back ferociously at Moynihan. The conference that was supposed to explore topics raised by Moynihan turned into two conferences of attempted damage control.

  1. 1

    Thomas Babington Macaulay, “William Pitt,” in Critical and Historical Essays, edited by A.J. Grieve (Everyman, 1907), p. 307.

  2. 2

    Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding (Free Press, 1969), p. xvii.

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