Daniel Patrick Moynihan died ten years ago this week, on March 26, 2003. His remarkable career took him from Hell’s Kitchen to Harvard, from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to the Nixon and Ford administrations, and from serving as America’s U.N. Ambassador for only eight months, starting in July 1975, to New York’s senator for four terms, from 1977 to 2001. But Moynihan “was not interested in power,” his widow Elizabeth Moynihan recalls, “Pat was interested in access for his ideas.” His unconventional ideas continue to illuminate public debate, his patriotic vision of liberal national greatness remains relevant, and his towering presence is sorely missed.
As social scientist, public intellectual, and professorial politician, someone, who George Will quipped, wrote more books as senator than most senators have read, Moynihan enjoyed defying the conventional wisdom. In truth, it cost him dearly in 1965 when his “Moynihan Report” warning about “the Negro family’s” deterioration was called racist. Five decades later, as four of ten American babies are born to unmarried mothers, we have indeed “defined deviancy down,” the phrase he forged in 1993.
In the Senate, Moynihan also offered a forward-thinking, creative alternative to gun control. Realizing there were too many guns on the street already, he proposed increasing the tax on hollow-tipped bullets by “Ten thousand percent” to limit the ammunition supply. He proclaimed: “Guns don’t kill people; bullets do.”
More broadly, Moynihan struggled to save liberalism from the extremism of his fellow liberals as well as conservatives. During the 1960s and 1970s, when so many on the hard Left escalated their national self-criticism into collective self-loathing, he thundered: “It is past time we ceased to apologize for an imperfect democracy. Find its equal.” In 1976, he ran for Senate using the campaign slogan: “This is a society worth defending.” Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won as liberal Democrats in post-1960s America, by distancing themselves from the hard left’s self-abnegation.
Beyond the apologetics, Moynihan acknowledged that in the persistent “tension between liberty and equality,” he favored “liberty.” Political totalitarianism worried him more than social inequities. Thus, he identified as a Wilsonian progressive, an FDR liberal, or a Great Society activist but not a neo-conservative. Moynihan suggested to “Punch” Sulzberger, the New York Times’ publisher, that whenever reporters called Moynihan a “neoconservative,” they should instead write “a liberal who votes for the defense budget” or simply a “liberal patriot.”
For all his skepticism toward liberals, Moynihan defended the welfare state during the Reagan era. He remained committed to the “great idea” at the heart of the Democratic Party, “that an elected government can be the instrument of the common purpose of a free people; that government can embrace great causes and do great things.”
In that spirit, before he became senator, Moynihan defended American values in November, 1975, as U.N. ambassador, when the Soviet Union helped push through General Assembly Resolution 3379 calling Zionism racism, trying to humiliate the United States six months after South Vietnam fell. Moynihan’s politics of patriotic indignation galvanized Americans during a time of national despair. Courageously condemning this “big Red lie,” that one form of nationalism, Jewish nationalism, in a forum of nationalisms, was somehow racist, paved the way for the patriotic resurgence of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” 1980s.
In challenging the U.N. so aggressively, Moynihan frustrated Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Idealists and realists had been clashing over American foreign policy for decades. Unlike the Machiavellian Kissinger, Moynihan believed in Woodrow Wilson’s vision of spreading American values worldwide. Moreover, Moynihan also anticipated that, beyond the Cold War, ethnic and religious tensions would dominate the geopolitical scene. He warned that America would now be “in opposition.”
Although he predicted the Soviet Union’s fall, the U.N.’s moral collapse, the American family crisis, and the epidemic of tribalism, among other modern phenomena, Moynihan was not prescient. He never expected the Republican Congressional triumph in 1994, among other political and geopolitical surprises. Moynihan was not a mystic, he had a method; applying rigorous social scientific research to real life problems, systematically, unsentimentally. He also believed in standing for principle, whether or not it was popular. “Did I make a crisis out of this obscene resolution?” Moynihan would bellow, responding to criticism that he picked a fight over the Zionism-racism resolution, “Damn right I did!”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan understood, as both professor and politician, that words matter and ideas count. In his 2002 Harvard commencement address, fighting the post-9/11 despair, championing the kind of mutual respect lacking today both within the American political universe and on the world stage, he acknowledged that “Democracy may not prove to be a universal norm. But decency would do.”
We need a Moynihan for today, a soothsaying social scientist, a truth-telling politician, a scholar statesman fighting for civility, a leader whose words matter and whose ideas count.