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.” 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 …