A story for the Easter season: Daniel Patrick “I don’t suppose there is any point in being Irish if you don’t know the world is going to break your heart eventually”* Moynihan had his staunch, freedom-loving heart broken at a dangerous place called the United Nations, and only a seat in the Senate could restore it. That made the third or fourth time in recent memory (mine) that the now-junior senator from New York had mourned for his own dashed hopes for a better world so eloquently and so profitably that he ended up with a better job, a new book, and more column inches of moral uplift from George F. Will and the other trendy purveyors of an easy decency calling itself “the new conservativism.”
Irishness can be its own excuse for hyperbole, and Moynihan probably should not be taken too literally in these timely griefs of his. In another life, he could be working the bars on Second Avenue, his heart broken by injustices in Belfast and his porkpie out for the IRA. That battered heart and battered houndstooth are his emblems, the stations of the cross he bears on a long and treacherous journey toward his own main chance. There is more of the Irish pol in this devotee of Savile Row and English country-house manners than in a whole back room of Jim Daleys and Honey Fitzs and founding Kennedys—the brutal sentimentality, the gift for lyric nonsense, the bashful charm that can turn vicious in a moment, the cultivation of injured sensibility, a kind of self-pity for the world’s ills.
Maybe a “new conservative” is just an old bleeding-heart liberal whose heart has started bleeding for itself. Pat Moynihan was house liberal to the Republicans longer, and later, than he was the Democrats’ resident conservative. He worked for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford without worrying overmuch about contradictions in his own commitment or in their policies. For a while, he even managed to devote himself to Arthur Goldberg, possibly the most fatuous man in Washington. (Goldberg is best remembered at the UN for the time he called a press conference to share the family’s “great joy” at the engagement of one or another of his children, and Mrs. Goldberg proceeded to read an Indian love poem to the astonished reporters.) And it was probably reasonable to predict, even then, that anyone willing to put in time with Arthur Goldberg at the Labor Department was not going to find it very trying to work for presidents who dangle cabinet titles and ambassadorships and the possibility—always irresistible to Moynihan—of reading about yourself every morning in the newspaper. Moynihan, in fact, never fretted about the ethics of working in Richard Nixon’s White House. His silence was odd in a Democrat, odder still in a soi-disant “liberal” Democrat or, as he used to call it (not for nothing, that Fulbright Fellowship to the London School of Economics), a “social democrat.” Oddest of all in a politician who makes his points in A Dangerous Place by attacking, for its self-serving slavishness, that class of international civil servants he likes to describe as a “Geneva elite,” fattening on imported peaches while the world starves. (Kurt Waldheim he dismisses as “a German infantry officer.”)
Moynihan seems to have been a model servant to his various masters—at least until he decided to come out of the closet as the Freedom Fighter of Turtle Bay. It could even be that the edginess of his Washington days, the rages against enemies (real or imagined but inevitably reporters) had to do with having to nod affectionately at Dick Nixon in the corridor. Or perhaps he never really noticed the presidents he served—not after Kennedy, anyway. For Moynihan’s president is, first and last, the man in the big brick house on Quincy Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thus, at the end of A Dangerous Place:
On Monday morning I called Henry Rosovsky at Harvard to say that I had sent my letter of resignation to the President, and that this would be announced at noon. He said he was disappointed. I said to the Dean that so was I, but it had become impossible to stay at the United Nations. The Dean said, “Oh, you mean that President!” Which sums up all I ever meant by a liberal society.
Arthur Goldberg could not have said it better.
In a way, Moynihan never leaves Harvard. It is the projected stage of all his confrontations at the UN; the intended audience for his most elaborate arguments. Nothing really concerns him more at the United Nations than his Cambridge status. When he rails against those lapsed Fabians, out of Africa via the LSE, who sell their souls to Qadhafi with their Zionism-as-a-form-of-racism votes and their cheers for Arafat, he wants everybody at the faculty club to stand up and say, “Right on, Moynihan.” He is obsessed by Henry Kissinger, the administration’s “other” Harvard professor, its reigning intellectual, and so, almost by definition, his nemesis, his scourge:
My dilemma was that the only way to continue working for the Secretary of State was to give up the Harvard chair, yet giving up the chair would ineluctably alter our working relationship. I would no longer be an equal. I would have no real alternative to the job I held as his gift, or such at least would have to be his view. He knew that; and I knew it; and he knew that I knew it.
He [Kissinger] slept four hours and worked twenty. Thus he was twice the man I was. On the other hand, I was not his inferior and I knew that also.
This is the stuff of psychiatry, not history—the king of thing you tell your analyst, not your public. But Kissinger stalks Moynihan like a testy Doppelgänger. Everywhere Moynihan turns, Kissinger is there to mock him. Kissinger ignores his cables, cuts into his credibility, gets to James Reston first with the story. And leaves poor Moynihan in the State Department sandbox—a 197-pound weakling, wiping the sand of Henry’s European cynicism from his innocent eyes.
Moynihan wants this book to vindicate his eight months as ambassador to the United Nations. He wants everyone to know that, in 1975 in his New York City, a resolution vilifying Israel passed the General Assembly by a vote of ninety-three to eighteen, and that responsibility for this vote rests, finally, not with him but with the kind of Real-politik Kissinger practiced—a politics decadent (pragmatic?) enough to accommodate this sort of rhetorical insanity. And for all we know, Moynihan may be right. Kissinger is his fallen-angel-of-an-intellectual, turned forever from the radiance of ideals.
Moynihan prefers his intellectuals a lot more earnest and a lot less subtle than Henry Kissinger. Certainly he shines more easily in a crowd of Gemütlich, moralistic men like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell than he ever did in Kissinger’s company. They are the kind of people, anyway, “whose good opinion…truly mattered.” Like Pat Moynihan, they are the new old boys of the American establishment, Horatio Algers of the Academy, conquering a never-never-world of tony publishers and serious magazines and think tanks and tenure lines. Kissinger’s kind of cold war, subtle and negotiable and played by rules that have nothing to do with outrage, makes them as nervous and insecure as a room full of Wall Street liberals, double-talking their oil panic into a statesmanlike concern for Palestinians.
Part of Moynihan’s problem is a kind of class embarrassment (“On the other hand I was not his inferior…”). He makes a good deal of working-class roots—Hell’s Kitchen, the New York docks—but his father, in fact, was a newspaperman and his maternal grandfather was a lawyer. As a boy, Moynihan spent a few obviously wounding years on the dole—his mother was down and out after each of her two bad marriages, and she eventually bought a saloon in Hell’s Kitchen, and Pat eventually tended bar there. But bartending for your mother during college vacations or spending a summer or two with the longshoremen is hardly the price of admission to the lumpenproletariat. Moynihan’s “roots” are thoroughly petit bourgeois, and it is this, really, that grates on his romantic Irish soul. He talks a lot about class, about who the really classy characters are. Bayard Rustin is “nature’s aristocrat.” Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz are “the class of people” who matter. Ed Koch “got up with a lot of class” after the Board of Estimate vetoed his Charlotte Street renewal project. Etc. etc. And it’s clear that somewhere along the way Moynihan himself decided that he would rather take his chances as a kind of classy scrapper from West 42nd Street than end up as another one of those bourgeois liberals destined for oblivion as an Undersecretary of State or a White House conference coordinator.
He created himself carefully—a last angry man, a musical comedy cold warrior, a Harvard update on one of O’Casey’s rosary and revolver Irishmen. Right was on Moynihan’s side at the United Nations the way God would have been at his side on March 17 if he had stayed behind the bar on West 42nd Street instead of making his way to the LSE to be secularized and polished along with all the slick young future presidents of those little countries whose presence at Turtle Bay he came to regard as so many mosquito bites on the fair and tender flesh of Western Democracy.
Moynihan’s picture on the jacket of A Dangerous Place says a lot about the book. It is something from a modern masque—Moynihan as Embattled Democracy, his right arm raised for truth in a chamber of barbarians. This is the same Moynihan who—with a little help from his friends at Commentary—put together the new conservatives’ position paper on communism and the Third World, and called it “The United States in Opposition.” He is no longer to be confused with the “benign neglect” Moynihan or the guaranteed-income Moynihan. This is a fighting scholar-statesman to be taken seriously wherever seriousness and substance are easily confused. This is an “important and provocative book,” the New York Times Book Review will say. Moynihan is destined for great acclaim, if not in the faculty club at least in the Senate dining room. He will make it to the (red) Hot Center of Esquire’s Neoconservative Establishment chart, and all the folks on the periphery will tremble with irrelevance.
Actually, A Dangerous Place is less a narrative than a running catalogue of the Senator’s press clips from the UN days and excerpts from his favorite articles and speeches, laced with some doomsday rhetoric and a lot of nasty asides addressed to almost everyone who has ever offended him. It is a once-and-future campaign tract. There is some Harvard, for stature. Some Washington for authority. The old LSE for sincerity, for intimations of a youthful romance with the Fabian socialists (it is never exactly clear what Moynihan means when he talks about Fabians, but he talks about them a lot). Some City College, for tough-mindedness.
It would be more instructive to catch one of the Senator’s talks than to work through the nearly three hundred pages of A Dangerous Place. His public gestures are as studied as his passions, from the way he lays an arm casually across the mantle (if there happens to be a mantle) to the way he has of hitching up his pants and sort of shyly jiggling himself around in them. There is his honest, injured way of staring down the cynics when he lectures them about liberty—as if to say that Pat Moynihan, for one, is not ashamed to use a word that meant so much to Edmund Burke. And then, finally, the asides, sotto voce and complicitous (“Am I clear? Do I make any sense?”), with which he offers up his argument to the scrutiny of your intelligence.
Had Moynihan come to Turtle Bay from the Maldive Islands, say, or Chad, the UN might have been a perfect platform for him. The UN, if it works at all, works as a kind of rhetorical lid on Realpolitik. It is a theater of rage, a cover story for all the concessions to real power that most countries have to make—a forum for “diplomatic” triumphs to balance, if not cancel, practical defeats. The UN today has mainly to do with face. It exists to validate the little African republic that is in the throes of a revolution or an invasion or a palace coup or a change of despots. None of this is particularly admirable, or even agreeable, but it is true. The Pat Moynihans and the Yacov Maliks and even the Ivor Richards are there to exert some of their deadly, quiet power behind the scenes while the weak and the angry redeem themselves by shouting. Moynihan broke the rules when he used the place like a twenty-year-old foreign minister from last week’s country. And the ingratitude broke his heart.
I haven’t read the original A Dangerous Place, which was written in 1974 by a couple of political scientists called Abraham Yeselson and Anthony Gaglione, though I have naturally wondered how Moynihan (so helpful about tracing Jimmy Carter’s New Foundations to the third line of the Internationale) could have been careless, or cavalier, enough to lift someone else’s title and not even credit them with a footnote. Yeselson and Gaglione subtitled their book “The United Nations as a Weapon in World Politics,” whereas a lot of people think that Moynihan should have called his “The United Nations as a Weapon in New York Politics.” It did not take the British ambassador to remind us (as he rather obliquely did in November of 1975) that Moynihan was carrying on at the UN like Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral. Whether he took the job as a kind of platform from which to run for the Senate, or quit the job to run for the Senate, the point is that he thoroughly misunderstood the nature of the institution as it had evolved (admittedly for the worse) since those first halcyon days at Lake Success—and that misunderstanding gave him a kind of license he should never have taken, It gave him the license to fail, eloquent and outraged, for his own advantage.
Moynihan acted as if he believed that the complex on the East River was meant to be another League of Nations, spreading justice and the rule of law to nations which would rise up, one by one, to testify for Western democracy like Oakies at a revival tent. He never really grasped that in thirty years the United Nations had turned into a kind of dinosaur, that it was too big for its brainpower, a monstrous body politic for 141 countries with nothing in common beyond the fact that most of them had not existed thirty years before. Membership in Moynihan’s UN had nothing to do with shared principles. It had to do with a common acknowledgment of borders, with a very pragmatic covenant about national sovereignty and (forgive the Kissingerism) geo-political order. The UN that Moynihan inherited was already written into the Charter in 1945. By now, and by definition, its protective mandate is at the service of the nation state, not the individual; and the idea of the nation state—the inviolability of that concept—is really all that holds the house of cards up any more. Witness the furor at Turtle Bay when Vietnam invaded Cambodia. People talked a lot about Cambodia’s freedom—and very little about the freedom of Cambodians.
No American ambassador, with the possible exception of Andy Young, has been happy at the UN for some time now. Adlai Stevenson was put to pasture there, and betrayed into lying about Cuba—and Americans were scandalized because eighteen years ago a few of us still believed that it was only Communists who lied in those sacred chambers. Arthur Goldberg, of course, was dumped at the UN by Lyndon Johnson, to free the “Jewish seat” on the Supreme Court for his buddy Abe Fortas. And then, for a time, ambassadors came and went so quickly that it is hard now to remember if Bush was before or after Scali and who, exactly, followed Moynihan. They came, mainly, because they were between jobs, or owed the president a favor, or had to pay their dues before they got the job they really wanted. But none of them seems to have had the contempt for the institution as it was (as opposed to the imagined institution) that Moynihan did. They tended to acknowledge at least some value in having a kind of institutional escape valve for political frustrations and humiliations—if only to expose them enough to be able to anticipate their consequences. (Cambodia—for whatever it’s worth—is thought to have “won” its war of words with Vietnam in the Security Council.)
They also seemed to respect the extent to which the Secretariat did function. The Secretary-General’s Political Affairs office (now run by a remarkable Englishman named Brian Urquhart) has helped to pick up the pieces and/or keep the peace in a few places these thirty years, whatever Moynihan may think—Hungary, Suez, Lebanon, the Congo, Cyprus, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Middle East in ’73, and, occasionally, even now. Life for a lot of people on Turtle Bay may be soft and rich, and the place may be run like its own protection racket, but it seems a little ingenuous for a man of Moynihan’s experience and ambition to scold a bunch of bureaucrats for looking out for themselves.
Moynihan, to do him justice, did arrive at the UN for its worst hour. He came when the Third Committee—rather wistfully called the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Affairs Committee—was a few years into that period of bribery and vicious politicking among the “non-aligned” countries otherwise known as the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. (Typically, this was intended as a “Year to Combat…”, not a Decade, but a year was evidently too little time to negotiate the spoils, political as well as material, that so much new oil money had produced.) The Decade was a gesture which would in time involve and excite the self-importance of thousands of delegates and mission fonctionnaires and bureaucrats as they dealt and double-dealt to produce a resolution describing the Zionist movement as a form of racism and fascism and aggression.
The Zionism resolution got to the Assembly floor in the fall of 1975, a few months after Moynihan took over the American mission, and by that time there was not much that he, or anybody else, could do about it. Moynihan took it personally. He took it as a symbol of the West’s disgrace, of a tragic failure of nerve and ideology, as ultimate proof that Kissinger’s policy of concession and détente was abandoning the world to communists. He fought long and loudly, when even the Israelis seemed eager to get the voting over and done with, and go home. He got a lot of publicity. For himself. For the resolution. For the whole squalid adventure.
What he accomplished is a toss-up. There is a very good argument—a moral argument—to be made for confrontation. There is a good practical argument for it, too, since no one has ever been able to prove that saving an enemy’s face, by silence or by sell-out, will make that enemy more docile and agreeable, and countries (like people) reluctant to call the shots usually end up with the shots called for them. (What, finally, was Munich but the treacherous conclusion to a decade of diplomatic courtesies extended to Germany by a lot of nervous neighbors?)
On the other hand, Moynihan’s “totalitarian majority” at the UN was a construct, a roll call in an assembly with no enabling powers. And there are people at the UN now who swear that George Bush and William Scranton, Moynihan’s predecessor and successor, did more in their methodical and quietly menacing ways to discourage, as it were, some of the more virulent anti-Semitism at the UN than Moynihan did in all his speeches about principles. No one will ever know, though Moynihan’s waiting around the General Assembly for a chance to go on record with the news that Idi Amin is a murderer was a little like waiting around to point out that grass is green—or that the people who insult America the most at Turtle Bay are rarely eager to leave this land of cheap and bountiful scotch and lovely women and big, glassy duplexes with river views.
None of Moynihan’s observations took much courage or much perspicacity, and they usually did not accomplish very much either. Moynihan was not going to convert anybody, and he knew it. He was making speeches for his own constituency, just like the delegates he scolded always did, when his job should have been to use what openings he found to the advantage of his government—and, maybe, even, to the advantage of democracy. He had never been noticeably so active in the cause of “Freedom” before—not when he was working for Johnson during Vietnam, certainly not when he was working for Nixon during Vietnam and Watergate. Yet his time at the UN was filled with vigilante speeches and leaked cables to the boss, and he ignored the etiquette of the place, which is that the big guys always avoid muscling the little guys (i.e., the ones whose countries wouldn’t fill a Third Avenue apartment house) in public. UN etiquette has it that the little guy gets whatever squalid, accusatory moment on the floor will guarantee his notoriety and importance when he goes home to become Prime Minister or President for Life and is replaced on 42nd Street by his younger brother. The UN is his Harvard, the place to have gone, the magic circle where contacts are made and futures negotiated. He is a snob, like most people who get the chance, and very likely one invitation to visit the Scrantons at their “place” in Pennsylvania did more for his ego, and for America, than a dozen summonses for a whiskey with Pat Moynihan at the bar in the delegates lounge.
The art of diplomacy has little enough to do with truth in the best of circumstances. Diplomacy at the UN has nothing to do with it at all. Moynihan may have done well by his country’s conscience, calling the shots as he saw them and getting his heart broken, but he did not do so well by his country’s president, who after all had hired him to report back on the meaning of events, not the sound. It may be that two years as the ambassador in India rattled him—India, God knows, has that effect on people. Probably, though, he was just too busy trying out his new “confrontational” persona to care. Moynihan had invented the United States in opposition, and he had replaced that tired communist conspiracy with a new “totalitarian majority”; now he was going to Turtle Bay to fight.
As it happened, he knew his own embarrassed middle class better than anyone suspected; he could not have spent two years in Nixon’s White House without coming across a few of those memos about the Archie Bunkers taking over. He sensed the threat that most Americans were feeling. He had gauged the elasticity of their liberalism, and knew how fragile confidence was. Long before the merchandisers of pop ideology discovered a “new” conservatism in the country, Moynihan was saying that a lot of people were exhausted from the strains of a decade of forced tolerance and protest and all the postures that went along with Sixties politics. Looking at himself, perhaps, he seems to have come to the conclusion that real generosity of spirit is something a society cannot sustain for very long—certainly not when money is tight and blacks are getting violent and the Viet Cong turns out to be rather disappointing as liberators, and the Third World, where so much money went, gets sullen and vindictive and discovers Palestine and terror, and on top of everything else no one can afford to heat his house.
Podhoretz had been telling Moynihan all along that the liberal elite would end up talking to itself in its paneled libraries, and that somebody had to lead an embattled bourgeoisie back to the kinds of values that elite could afford to mock—values like Family, Honor, Courage, Liberty, Performance. It was time for some gunboat diplomacy of the spirit, for the old cold war dressed up as a course in Western Civilization. It was time, as Moynihan must have understood it, to reduce a complicated—and even appropriate—set of conservative social responses to a common denominator of complacency and hostile pride. His rhetoric of American values tended to stop discussion and freeze attitudes about the Third World, say, or the Communists or our own public policy, when any truly “new” conservativism would have opened the discussion on them.
People voted for Moynihan, and they will probably vote for him again. His arguments appeal. There is something glowing and satisfying about his outrage—and that, after all, is what demagoguery is about. Discouraging reflection. Moynihan’s spiel these days includes a little Burke, some Wilson, and the ethic of “performance” to settle the ambiguities of inequality in a world where, as always, rich people will sacrifice poor people, rich countries poor countries, when there is not enough food or oil or power to go around. Moynihan, lately, is not so far from the retired admirals and generals who bought a page in the Sunday Times a couple of months ago to accuse Carter of selling America to the Russians with the SALT talks. A Dangerous Place plays on the affection and relief most of us must have felt when Moynihan spoke up for Israel. But the implication is that anyone who disagrees with him is a communist or an opportunist or a fraud or a fool. Ignore him.
May 3, 1979