Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in an exemplary biography


I have been a newspaper reporter, editor, columnist, editorial page editor and critic since John F. Kennedy was president. I have interviewed and otherwise covered eight U.S. presidents, including one, Harry S Truman, after his time in office. During those years, I've met six men who I believe had the qualities of character, principle, energy and ambition that could make them great presidents.

Four had that job. Two did not. I will leave the other names for other occasions, but one of the latter was Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Now comes a long-overdue biography, "The Gentleman from New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan," by Godfrey Hodgson (Houghton Mifflin, 436 pages, $35). It's a splendid piece of work, an eloquent and exemplary biography of an immensely complex man, who is now about to retire from the U.S. Senate at age 73.

Hodgson is a British journalist and scholar who has known America and Moynihan well for some 40 years. He says his book focuses "on the interplay between ideas and action in the life of a man who has been called 'the nation's best thinker among politicians since Lincoln, and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.'"

Hodgson is a punctilious researcher and an irresistibly energetic writer. The book is crammed with facts and insights that delight and inform, a lush tapestry of Moynihan's America and the cavalcade of men and women whose lives intersected his. (Moynihan discovered Ralph Nader when Nader was an enlisted man at Fort Dix in 1964 and wrote a provocative magazine article - and soon brought the young activist to the fore. There's lots more such stuff.)

This is not an "authorized" biography, in the sense that suggests approval and substantial control by the subject. But Hodgson had complete access to both Moynihan and his extraordinarily smart wife, Liz, and to a vast quantity of Moynihan papers and journals - as well as unstinting conversations with friends, colleagues and rivals still at the highest intensity of recall.

Moynihan was born to interesting circumstances. His father was a mercurial journalist in the rollicking newspaper days of the 1920s and early '30s, but his mother was left to raise him in Depression misery. Young Pat shined shoes and sold papers and lived over a bar in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen.

Personally cheerful, convivial, civilized and entertaining, Moynihan was always his own man: Enormously valuable to and influential with many of the American leaders of his time, he never became an insider. Though today many think of him as a Camelot knight, he was - strange as that may seem - never personally close to any of the Kennedys.

The most powerful parts of the book - the most gripping occasions of Moynihan's life - are the points at which he was so far ahead of conventional political platitude and so soundly grounded on humane values that he was rewarded with abuse and rage.

The first case was the so-called "Moynihan Report" in 1965, which provided the foundation for much of the most effective parts of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program. Moynihan forewarned that high unemployment among African-Americans would cause a dangerous and escalating breakdown in family structure, and he proposed strong preventive remedies. Opportunistic demagogues and people who never read the report branded it as racist - the exact opposite of its fundamental concern and conclusions.

Another case was his report in January 1970 to President Nixon on the statistically sound finding that the core of African-American families' share in America had significantly improved since 1960 while the least advantaged blacks' positions were worsening. As a result, Moynihan concluded blacks and whites were becoming increasingly alienated - and that ill-disguised rage was fueling both sides and hurting everyone.

He insisted that it was time that "the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect.'" He was writing, specifically, about race-based oratory and argumentation. "The forum is being too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids and boodlers on all sides. We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades."

That report, as in 1965, was twisted by demagogues as suggesting neglect of African-Americans' legitimate concerns.

Moynihan again was scorned by his fellow Democrats and traditional liberals for going to work in the Nixon administration - first as Nixon's chief domestic policy adviser and then as U.S. delegate to the United Nations and, in 1973, as ambassador to India.

Moynihan argued, again correctly, that his critics were failing to recognize that the nation was in dire crisis - and need. Leaping that chasm of partisan passions, he chose the higher call of national interest, and significantly worked to bring important concerns into the administration's actions.

Then, in 1976, he ran for the U.S. Senate for New York, defeating Bella Abzug in a difficult Democratic primary and then the incumbent, James L. Buckley. The rest of the story is his extraordinarily distinguished Senate career.

Hodgson's book is even-handed in its presentation of the man. It is a balanced examination of the disputes he provoked and the attacks he absorbed. Without slipping into anything approaching adulation, it shows a Moynihan who is driven by keenness of mind, valor of heart and maturity of wisdom. Moynihan's often abrasive independence and his impatience with those who were not with him are fully in play in the narrative.

I first met Moynihan while he was serving the Kennedy administration as assistant secretary of Labor. There among the knights of Camelot - a heady time to be a green reporter in Washington - Moynihan, then 36, struck me as the most impressive generator of ideas in town. He had a genius for seeing and telling the truth - and, I was moved to feel, for recognizing those who were smart enough to see it as he did. He knows the values of flattery.

As almost 40 years have gone by, I have felt ever more strongly that Moynihan is a miracle of decency and intellect, a genuinely great man. This clear-eyed, unsentimental biography does justice to that man and to the history that has surrounded and been shaped by him.

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