At 10 a.m. on January 23, 1969 — his third full day in office — President Richard Nixon signed Executive Order 11452, to establish a new executive-branch agency called the “Urban Affairs Council” (UAC). With its interdepartmental structure and centralized White House control of federal policy for America’s struggling cities, then as now beset by decay and radicalism, the UAC was intended to replicate the primacy that the National Security Council and its chief officer, Henry Kissinger, would enjoy over U.S. foreign policy. To run the council, the new president — a Republican from California elected with just 43 percent of the vote and facing a Congress with both houses, for the first time in 120 years, under opposition control — selected as executive director a leading light of the opposition: Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Six-foot-five, silver-haired and chubby-cheeked, given to bowties and circumlocutory Irish wit, Moynihan was one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals. From Hell’s Kitchen he had risen to Harvard University: epicenter of Nixon’s fear and loathing of the eastern elite. He was also, worse still, a Kennedy man. After JFK’s assassination, columnist Mary McGrory had famously said to Moynihan, “We will never laugh again,” prompting Moynihan to reply: “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.” That same gift with words had first catapulted Moynihan to notoriety in 1965, when he was assistant secretary of labor and published a white paper entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” A product of the Department of Labor’s Office of Policy Planning and Research — the mirroring of foreign-policy architecture by domestic agencies was already in vogue in LBJ’s time — the “Moynihan report” pointedly dissected the “tangle of pathology” afflicting black America.
“Of all the odd couples in American public life,” writes Stephen Hess, “were they not the oddest?” Hess should know: He was Moynihan’s deputy and confidant when the flamboyant sociologist-cum-policymaker took up residence in the West Wing, which was run, with dour efficiency, by H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. (These were the days before Watergate, before Nixon attained his unique coloration in American history, and when he was seen in simpler terms: as a conventional chief executive and commander-in-chief, loved or hated but not disgraced, judged on his policies and not through the dark lens of scandal.)
Unlike Moynihan, Stephen Hess had a history with Nixon. After serving on the staff of President Eisenhower, Hess wrote speeches and other material for Nixon in his “wilderness years” and co-authored, with Earl Mazo, one of the earliest Nixon biographies. On November 22, 1963, Nixon returned to New York from a speaking engagement the day before in — of all places — Dallas and had Hess meet him at his Fifth Avenue apartment; the latter watched as Nixon, visibly shaken, telephoned J. Edgar Hoover to ask the FBI director who was responsible for the assassination. As with many of his other aides, Nixon would cycle through periods of esteem for and discontent with Hess, with H. R. Haldeman’s yellow-pad notes recording numerous instances in which the president wondered aloud whether Hess was a “viper in our midst” who should be fired or wiretapped. (Full disclosure: Steve Hess has been a friend since college days, when I took a course he taught; and, like every other reporter in Washington, where Hess has spent 40 years at the Brookings Institution, I’ve quoted him many times. As he notes in his acknowledgments section, I aided his research for this book by supplying documents I had reviewed for my book on Watergate. He appeared on my online program, The Foxhole, to promote the book, in December; my criticisms here will dispel any intimations of favoritism.)
Contributing to the oddness of the Moynihan appointment was Nixon’s almost total lack of interest in domestic policy. In the final, bitter days of the 1962 California gubernatorial race, already knowing he had lost, RN exhaled in private to Hess, his speechwriter: “At least I’ll never have to talk about crap like dope addiction again.” Nixon later told Theodore H. White that America could run itself domestically, that what a president was needed for was to manage foreign affairs. As he defied liberal friends who pleaded with him not to join the Nixon White House, what, exactly, can Moynihan have imagined he would accomplish there?
Having waited almost 50 years to tell their story, Hess writes of the Nixon–Moynihan relationship in the present tense, a stylistic approach both admirably adventurous for an 82-year-old wonk emeritus and often gripping. Too frequently, however, the author deviates from this effective you-are-there approach to indulge in frivolous asides. (The most egregious of these is when Hess exults that the artist whose work he has chosen to hang on his White House office walls will also, one day, be favored by Michelle Obama.) Mostly, though, this is a brisk, lively read, a concise and shrewdly observed portrait of an unlikely political alliance. Our 37th president, so complex and contradictory, familiar yet elusive, is illuminated anew.
It is not only Nixon’s selection of Moynihan that amazes even today, but the broad sway that the urbane urbanologist came to exert over the president’s intellectual imagination and domestic policy. Even before Inauguration Day, Moynihan began bombarding RN with chatty and discursive memos, invariably literary in tone, often focused on topics far from the president’s typical purview; the adviser also advanced his cause by excelling, in dreary or contentious meetings, at the timely, face-saving quip. “Pat proves to be an amazingly agile bureaucratic player,” writes Hess:
When Pat is invited into Nixon’s exclusionary world he charms and entertains the president. . . . Pat is writing to Nixon intellectual-to-intellectual, without a bit of patronizing. Nixon has never been treated this way before. He loves it! Now that he is finally to be president, Nixon seems to have room for knowledge other than what he has needed to get there.
Soon the leader of the free world is requesting — and determinedly plowing through — Moynihan’s annotated list of his top ten favorite political biographies. The foil in this narrative is Arthur Burns, the conservative economist who first befriended Nixon in the Eisenhower era, and whose personal diary, unpublished until 2010, records growing frustration across the first Nixon term. “Moynihan seems to think that whatever displeases liberals is a disaster,” Burns writes. “Have I misjudged Nixon? Does he have real convictions?” Nixon repays his old friend when the opportunity presents itself, by naming Burns chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Moynihan’s largest contribution to the domestic policy of the Nixon administration, adopted over Burns’s objections, was a proposal for a negative income tax, constructed as a guaranteed income for poor households. The thinking was that the federal government should get out of the business of providing services, an activity in which its performance record was already discredited, and just do what it does best: cut checks. Although this idea — embodied in the Family Assistance Plan — died in Senate committee in 1970, it spawned an early conservative suspicion of Nixon, which only solidified the following year, when he enacted wage and price controls to combat runaway inflation.
Quoting from Moynihan’s memos and Nixon’s replies, formal messages to Congress, and other contemporaneous documents, Hess shows how the president — consumed with Vietnam, Soviet diplomacy, and China, and determined to harvest what little capital he had with an unfriendly Congress — embraced, seemingly by default, the weltanschauung of his liberal predecessors and the Great Society edifice he inherited. At the UAC’s first meeting, Nixon declared that developing a coherent federal policy for cities offered no guarantee of success in urban affairs. “But,” he added, “it is a precondition of success.” The true conservative view would have held that the most fundamental fact about urban blight — then and now — is that the onus for redressing it should reside principally with the local communities themselves. Nowhere does Hess pause to examine, let alone deconstruct, the assumption that animated his mentor’s work: namely, that the problems of “the cities,” which loomed so large in the late 1960s and early ’70s, were chiefly the responsibility of the federal government to fix.
Only after Moynihan departed the White House, returning briefly to Harvard before Nixon named him U.S. ambassador to India, did the president shake off the sorcerer’s spell and question how his California conservatism had given way to Keynesianism and leviathan-state largesse. Nixon by June 1971 had experienced an epiphany of sorts, complaining to Haldeman, as captured in the ubiquitous yellow pads, about the policy direction in which Ehrlichman and Moynihan had steered him:
we’re screwing up so many things
have to be tougher on domestic [policy]
P. is not lib – is conserve.
all our programs are wrong – gain nothing & wrong for country
Haldeman would further record Nixon’s lament that he had been “derelict in not moving on Grt. Society programs” and the president’s instruction to aides to “go for increases in military budget . . . and squeeze the Great Society programs”:
need to move
ahead on gov’t wide [effort]
get a hold of big government
By then, however, circumstances had conspired to fuse the president’s foreign-policy bent with his taste, nourished in the Alger Hiss case a quarter-century earlier, for intelligence intrigue. June 1971 brought Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers; July, the publication, also in the New York Times, of the United States’ fallback negotiating posture in the SALT talks; October, an internal power struggle at the FBI that threatened to disclose the wiretaps that had been placed on NSC staffers and newsmen in 1969; December, the internal revelation — determinedly buried, for the moment, by Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell — that the joint chiefs of staff had carried out an elaborate espionage operation against Nixon and Kissinger, stealing 5,000 classified documents over 13 wartime months.
All this, in turn, would fuse with other random particles—in the form of G. Gordon Liddy, John Dean, and other forgotten figures—to form the Watergate scandal, and Nixon’s singular abdication of the Oval Office. Reforming his domestic policy, even after the historic re-election landslide of 1972, would be something President Nixon never got around to tackling. The Haldeman notes tantalize with the suggestion that the second term, free of Watergate, might have seen a serious effort in that direction; The Professor and the President establishes, with scholarly care and a memoirist’s flair, how long the road back would have been.
Mr. Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and the author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.