Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Cyrano of U.S. politics


In late 1984, I had just returned to New York, the town of my birth, to be editorial page editor of the New York Daily News, at that time the largest circulation newspaper in the United States. One of the first people to call me was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who with better recall than I could claim, recollected our first meeting, during the last months of the Kennedy administration, when he was assistant secretary of labor and I was a neophyte correspondent covering those less than sought after beats -- Labor, Commerce, Treasury, Agriculture and the like.

So, he said, let's resume, though we had seen each other from time to time in the intervening 20 years. I invited him to the News. I arranged to take him and a handful of colleagues to lunch. He was, of course, U.S. senator for the state of New York. There were serious issues to discuss, and I was there, above all, to get my colleagues to take serious issues seriously.

He arrived, on a Thursday as best I can remember, a few minutes after noon -- towering, almost bouncing with energy, glowing with apparent glee. Our lunch companions came into my office and we chatted. I asked him what we should do to make the newspaper better. "I can't possibly tell you," he insisted. "I am too close to it." He told us that when he was a boy, his contribution to the family household was to sell the News. "I bought the bulldog edition for a few cents a copy," he said, "and sold it at midtown bars and delis for a few cents more. I went home, often very late, when I could take a dollar with me."

You know it well, I said.

"Too well to tell you to change it."

It was lunchtime, obviously. We all moved toward the door of my office. My phone buzzed, insistently. A call I had to take. I asked the others to go on and told them that I would meet them at the designated restaurant a block or so away.

The telephone call took five or six minutes. I went to the elevator and to the lobby of that glorious art deco building that then was still the Daily News -- famed in many movies. There was a choir across from the towering world globe in the center of the expanse. They were boys, still sopranos and altos, from one of a couple of dozen schools or parishes that for generations had been invited to carol in the lobby of the News during the Christmas season.

They were just beginning "Adeste Fidelis," that most cherished of all Christmas hymns. I stopped and turned to listen for a moment before charging off to lunch. My eye stopped. There, in the back row of three-foot-tall choir boys was Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- former assistant cabinet secretary, U.S. delegate to the United Nations, ambassador to India, learned scholar, important author and distinguished intellectual, U.S. senator and former newsboy.

He was singing in full but restrained voice, the only baritone sound in the choir, giving bass resonance to this assembly of angels. There was absolutely no question that he belonged there. He wavered not a note through four verses, his Latin impeccable.

One might have said that day that Pat Moynihan was behaving as a consummate political animal. Or one could have found him, as I did at that moment, a man full of the bliss that is the capacity to freely celebrate life and humanity.

I will not belabor Pat Moynihan's career here. As I write this, millions of words are being written about him around the world, very properly. I suppose I have written a hundred thousand or so myself about him and his accomplishments. Among then, I remember making a case that he was the Cyrano de Bergerac of American politics -- his white plume unstained.

If you want to read about him, there is a superb, recent biography: The Gentleman from New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, by Godfrey Hodgson (Houghton Mifflin, 436 pages, $35). And among his own many books, I commend the 1996 Miles to Go: A Personal History of Social Policy (Harvard University Press, 243 pages, $22.95).

I have spent my life as a newsman. That life has been founded on the proposition that it is the constitutional, even sacred, role of the press in the United States to be skeptical of and distant from politicians and others in public power.

In the somewhat more that 40 years that I have plied that trade, I have become personal friends with, I believe, no more than four or five public officials -- and most of them after they left public life. I don't mean to express contempt. Over all, I have found the personal values, integrity and decency of people in public service to be -- though not without dreadful exceptions -- more admirable than people in commerce, academic life or the arts. But my job, which has given me pride, has put up a tall wall against mingling my private life with people in power.

Pat Moynihan, despite my diffidence, became one of that tiny band. A major piece of our bond was, I think, because his mind and his values were far beyond conventional political platitude, and indomitably based on humane values. Like the most courageous journalists, he was often rewarded with misinterpretation and rage.

I will leave it to others to revisit his extraordinary sensitivity, insight and courage in perceiving the horrors of U.S. social welfare failures. But for all the abuse he received from demagogues, he contributed, I believe, more to the well-being and dignity of American minorities in the post World War II period than any politician but for Lyndon Johnson.

My perception of Moynihan's life is that it was above all a crusade against intellectual laziness, political cowardice and the inadequacy of the methods and devices of conventional government. A scholar of social science, he battled the fallibility and often ridiculousness of much of the social-scientific approach to real-life problems and its incompetence with dealing with human realities.

That was but one of innumerable ways in which Pat Moynihan brought courage, intelligence and humanity to public life. This nation and the world are better for his having graced and nourished them.

And right now, I think I hear his full baritone -- blending gracefully with a welcoming choir of angels.

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