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.

The oddest thing about the Moynihan Report, in the light of his later positions, was that it recommended the kind of “social engineering” that he would be mocking for years to come. It was not enough, according to the report, to give poor blacks money they would waste or jobs they could not keep. A prior restructuring of interpersonal relations at their most intimate nexus must first be attempted by the government. This was a use of social science as the basis of policy that Moynihan would heatedly attack in his 1967 lectures on the War on Poverty published as Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding (1969). The lectures, delivered at the Technical College of Delhi, New York, were written at Harvard, where Moynihan went to lick his wounds after the debacle of the report. He was invited to join the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies by its director, James Q. Wilson. Moynihan wanted tenure, but Wilson had some difficulty getting it for him. Moynihan had no scholarly publications to his credit except one article written with Wilson himself and his minor contribution to Beyond the Melting Pot, but Wilson finally procured him tenure in the odd perch of the School of Education.

Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding is an angry and incoherent book. It has such invertebrate sentences as this:

Two unusually gifted and successful elected officials, working in the tradition of New York ethnic politics, their shared view, contrasting as they do with those of the professional reformer is to be noted.3

Moynihan criticizes President Johnson’s community action programs for encouraging “maximum feasible participation” of the poor in the programs meant to alleviate their disadvantages. Some of the programs were, admittedly, unwise attempts to shove aside local machines like Richard Daley’s in Chicago, and they had all the difficulties of other attempts to placate the socially discontented of the time. But instead of seeing the botched aspects of the program as a result of political pressures of many sorts, Moynihan makes two leaps in logic. He claims that the community action programs came almost entirely, by way of a Ford Foundation project meant to counter juvenile delinquency, from the writings of two social scientists, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin. That, he says, was the programs’ intellectual mistake.

Their moral error lay in the motives of those adopting the Cloward-Ohlin view—they did it because other forms of action did not “elicit in the fancies of the white radical quite the same fascination as does the black demi-monde.”4 Those running the Johnson “war” (with Sargent Shriver in charge of the programs) were as interested in fomenting revolution as in alleviating poverty: “The reaction among many of the more activist social scientists (obviously this risks labelling a vast number of persons from a smallish number of incidents) was not to be appalled by disorder, but almost to welcome it” (emphasis in the original).5 Then, in the most bizarre passage in all of Moynihan’s writing, he equates those willing to accept community participation in the War on Poverty with those denying the Communist menace in the past:

At the necessary risk of oversimplification, it may be said that crime in the streets as a political issue began to assume the role that Communists in government had played in the 1940s and early 1950s. The parallels were striking….

In both eras, a distinctive posture of altogether too many members of the intellectual-academic world was to reject the legitimacy of the issue either of subversion or violence on grounds that those who raised it either were not intelligent enough to comprehend fully any complex issue or else had something other in mind than their putative concern for the public safety. The plain fact is that in both instances the intellectual group had acquired an interest in the political turmoil of the moment and came very near to misusing its position to advance that interest. In the first period the intellectual-academic community seemed filled with persons who, in [Irving] Kristol’s description, “prefer to regard Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley as pathological liars, and who believe that to plead the Fifth Amendment is the first refuge of a scholar and a gentleman.”6

This McCarthyism by proxy is unjust to the confused efforts at coping with 1960s unrest. Moynihan sees a single plot to push a single theory out of vile motives. The quote from Kristol shows what was happening to Moynihan as the Nixon era began. His friends from The Reporter days were moving to the right, becoming the neoconservatives in reaction to urban and (especially) campus unrest. Moynihan was eager to join them partly because of the savaging his own social-science interventionism (the report) had received from blacks, radical and otherwise. He was understandably dismayed at being called a racist on what he considered fraudulent grounds, and he discerned a great treason of the clerks in the way some white liberals supported the black outcry against his report. His early distrust of do-gooders opposing the Democratic political machine in New York hardened into a bitterness toward liberals more generally considered.

Seen in this light, the puzzlement some expressed when Moynihan went into the Nixon administration is itself puzzling. Where else was he to go? When it became clear that Nixon would be elected, Moynihan sent him a flattering letter, volunteering to supply him with research on the problem of black unemployment. Nixon was seeking liberal cover (which he mistakenly thought Kissinger and Moynihan could provide, just because they were from Harvard). Within the new administration, Moynihan provided forthright, though private, criticism of the Vietnam War; but before long he had provided another unnecessary controversy with his second most famous policy memorandum, calling for “benign neglect” of black problems. Once again, his basic argument was not malign. He said that economic progress, not rhetorical battle, was needed for improving conditions in the ghetto. But his record with blacks ensured that the provocative phrase, not the recommendation, which was intended to have a calming effect, would fill the headlines.

The third of his policy proposals—the Family Assistance Plan meant to provide a minimum income for the poor—has received a better press, but it was also unproductive. The plan had some of the disadvantages of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health care proposals. It tried to be many things to many people. Moynihan picked up on a conservative proposal that had been advanced in a Democratic administration—the “negative income tax” concept of Milton Friedman (who likes to call a dole a dole), which was advocated by Wilbur Cohen of President Johnson’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, but rejected at a time when the War on Poverty was being displaced by the war in Vietnam. Moynihan revived the scheme, symmetrically, as a liberal proposal in a Republican administration (what he called the Disraeli strategy, Tory men with Whig measures). But Arthur Burns, Nixon’s economic adviser, fought the idea, and the attempt to make it a conservatively liberal and liberally conservative innovation produced what Hodgson calls “a bold but almost incomprehensible package of compromises.” Besides, though Moynihan flatters Nixon for backing the program, the President was never really committed to it—domestic policy bored him, and he was certainly not going to risk his conservative base on this issue. Moynihan was supposed to provide him cover, not results.

Nixon bailed Moynihan out of the White House with a compensatory appointment as ambassador to India. Hodgson argues persuasively that Moynihan did great service by coaxing Washington into forgiving India its debt to the United States, but efforts to improve basic relations between the two countries foundered on Moynihan’s need to influence Indira Gandhi while humoring Nixon’s peevish hatred of her. By the time Moynihan returned to America, he was able to take out his own impatience with Gandhi’s “nonaligned” criticisms of America in a wrathful article attacking the non-aligned countries in the UN. This ingratiated him with his neoconservative friends, who were backing Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s assault on Henry Kissinger’s détente policies. Kissinger, trying to placate these critics, asked President Ford to make Moynihan the ambassador to the UN. Nixon had wanted liberal cover from the man; now Kissinger wanted conservative cover from him. Moynihan frothed and fumed in the UN at foes of America and Israel, going farther than Kissinger wanted. But Moynihan, even by Hodgson’s account, was wrong in thinking he had been betrayed by Kissinger. There was never any trust between them to be betrayed.

The championing of Israel in the UN proved a wonderful boost to the idea that Moynihan should become New York’s senator. Jackson and his forces threw themselves strenuously into the campaign that elected Moynihan in 1976, though he prudently began backing off from their zealotry the moment he was in office. Hodgson thinks Moynihan’s four terms in the Senate are his golden era—he devotes roughly 150 pages to these twenty-four years, against roughly 250 for his subject’s first fifty years. The ratio is hard to justify. Moynihan has not been a great legislator of important programs—though in some ways he seemed destined for the Senate. Insofar as it was ceasing to be a gentleman’s club and veering toward the acrimonious cockpit of more recent times, he has been a moderating force. He loves civil debate, honorable deals, and gallant gestures. He has raised the level of many discussions, and on the subject of governmental secrecy he has been a voice of sanity.

His acute sense of honor made him resign from the Senate Oversight Committee when William Casey lied to it about the CIA’s covert actions, and he brought the mad dog Casey to heel. (He later withdrew his resignation.) Not the least old-fashioned aspect of Moynihan is his sense of honor. (I find it, perhaps provincially on my part, in his missing only two of his Harvard classes during the semester when he was running for senator for the first time—on the morning after his election, when his staff was still up celebrating in New York, he was back at Cambridge conducting his last class.)

Moynihan’s experience with the CIA has made him a scathing critic of secrecy in the government. In his important 1998 book, Secrecy, he points out that, absurdly, the number of classified documents has increased rather than decreased with the end of the cold war. The healthy skepticism he developed in his dealings with the CIA made him realize, long before others did, that the agency’s estimates of Soviet strength were grossly overstated. He has, as well, been eloquent on the losing side in important battles like Clinton’s devolution of welfare to the states.7

Is all this enough to earn Hodg-son’s title for Moynihan—that of a “prophet”? It is true that he has spotted problems before some others did, but then he muddied the discourse by ill-considered or wildly phrased response to it. He has not been identified with any great policy breakthrough or lasting achievement. Hodg-son thinks this might have been different if his major policy initiative, the Family Assistance Plan, had passed—but perhaps that too would have failed, internally flawed as it was and unsupported by key political forces. It may be a blessing to his reputation that he did not get his way at that time.

Instead of making one great contribution, Moynihan’s skill has been for continual maneuver, at some cost to consistency (but not to honor). Hodgson finds great caution behind his sometimes reckless verbal gestures. He burned few bridges. Still, he has earned the friendship of a good critic like Hodgson, the loyalty of many others, and the devotion of an intelligent and supportive wife. (Asked whether he drinks too much, she grants that he comes home and has a drink at night, but “he has been coming home to have a drink with the same woman for the last thirty-some years.”) Not a candidate for Mount Rushmore, perhaps. But Moynihan, if no prophet, is a decent and likable person, one with a high ideal of public service, of national as well as of personal honor, an upholder of imperiled moral and intellectual standards in the Senate. He has served the state of New York with persistent and effective interventions for its welfare over the last twenty-four years. Is that enough? Why not?

This Issue

November 16, 2000