In the 1965 New York City mayoral campaign, a Democratic politician named Paul Screvane was running for mayor and looking for a running mate for the job of city-council president. He chose Pat Moynihan, a 38-year-old Irish-American intellectual who had worked in Lyndon Johnson’s Labor Department.
Moynihan’s first foray into electoral politics was not terribly successful. Not only did he and Screvane lose the Democratic primary, but the young intellectual proved a terrible campaigner. Despite his brainy reputation — which put off many blue-collar Democrats — Moynihan turned out to be an inarticulate and ineffectual speaker. Few would have guessed that in little over a decade, that same man would become a U.S. Senator.
Throughout much of his career, Moynihan found himself the odd man out. He was an intellectual thriving for success in the tough-minded world of politics, yet many academics dismissed his writings with barely concealed contempt. As the “house liberal” of the Nixon White House, Republicans eyed Moynihan warily. Yet the political marriage between Senator Moynihan and the liberal New York Democratic party was always a bit uneasy.
Despite this, he managed to have a career that would be the envy of most politicians and academics. His death Wednesday at the age of 76 has deprived the nation of one of its most thoughtful and engaged political figures.
Pat Moynihan’s lifetime encompassed the rise of the New Deal Democratic coalition and the subsequent (and continuing) crisis of American liberalism. He was an early neoconservative, whose intellectual center was The Public Interest. Yet unlike his friend Irving Kristol and others, he never completed the political and intellectual journey. He always remained true to the Democratic party.
Throughout his career, he frustrated those on both sides of the political spectrum. He was a hard-minded critic of the excesses of the 1960s, both of the counterculture and some aspects of the Great Society. The growing of elitism of the new liberals dismayed him. Yet he continued to fashion himself a New Deal Democrat.
Some Democrats are still mad at Moynihan for his role in the defeat of the Clinton healthcare plan, as well as his support for Social Security reform. Many liberals never forgave the man who recommended to President Nixon that the country take a position of “benign neglect” toward race relations. (It is often forgotten that this memo was written in reaction to the infamous “Radical Chic” cocktail party for Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein’s apartment.)
Moynihan also puzzled many conservatives. Although Moynihan defeated the flaky, left-wing Bella Abzug to win the Democratic Senate nomination in 1976, it was the incumbent Senator James Buckley, the darling of conservative movement, who ultimately saw his political career ended by Pat Moynihan that year.
As an outspoken ambassador to the U.N. in the 1970s, Moynihan established himself as a tough-minded defender of America’s interests. But as a senator, Moynihan opposed much of the Reagan-Bush era foreign policy and then surprised many by voting against the 1991 Gulf War.
Though some of his criticisms of the intelligence community seem dated after 9/11, his concern with the effects of government secrecy produced one important victory. One of Moynihan’s greatest contributions in his late career was his role in opening up the previously declassified “Venona” files that showed the extent of Soviet spying in the 1930s and 1940s. Moynihan realized that government secrecy in this case was preventing historians from having access to material that supported the allegations of Whittaker Chambers and others.
Many people who admired Moynihan’s writing throughout his life were often disappointed by his political career. It was sometimes said that Moynihan “wrote Right and voted Left.” For the sake of a safe Senate set, he had long ago made his peace with the New York Democratic party. But one can’t blame Moynihan too much. After all, by the 1990s he was sharing the same party with Al Sharpton, who once challenged Moynihan in the Democratic primary. His Democratic party had changed and he was forced to adapt.
Moynihan was a man of immense intellectual curiosity, whose interests ranged from Social Security to welfare policy, intelligence gathering, to architecture and urban planning. Though a senator for 24 years, his ultimate legacy is not legislative. Rather it is in bridging the world of ideas and the world of politics.
The New York Times’s front-page obituary for Moynihan calls him the “Senator from Academia.” But Moynihan was often a critic of the mushy-headed thinking that too often pervades academia. His great legacy was in understanding not only the power of ideas, but also the importance of giving life to those ideas in the political realm.
Moynihan was often seen as too political for most academics and too academic for most politicians. Yet he leaves a remarkable legacy of intellectual engagement with some of the most important issues of the late 20th century.
We should wish as much from more of our politicians and academics.
— Vincent J. Cannato is an assistant professor history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is the author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and his Struggle to Save New York.