(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
The lovely Mrs. Ladner gave me Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary for Christmas. Once I started reading it, a found it quite difficult to put down the 702 page tome. DPM’s career as advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ambassador to India and the United Nations and United States Senator is interesting in itself. The real value of the book however lies in the letters of the scholarly Senator providing a first hand account of how Washington elites wrestled with the issues that still consume us today.
Despite the fact that Johnson viewed DPM somewhat suspiciously as an Irish Catholic “Kennedy man” Moynihan’s memoranda to President Johnson especially jump off the page. Moynihan laid out in detail why the path to the Civil Rights Act was comparatively easy compared to what faced the nation going forward. Americans broadly support equality of opportunity he explained but the reform coalition would inevitably fragment over attempts to provide equality of condition.
Citing data from the United States Armed Services exam, he attempted to steel the resolve of the Johnson administration that American Blacks had been so profoundly damaged by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that they were poorly situated to thrive in an atmosphere of free competition. DPM estimated that the nation faced a 50 year project to right this wrong, and that it would be enormously controversial, but that the administration may as well get on with it. You can judge for yourself whether this was a wise course to follow, but Moynihan’s clear-eyed prescience regarding everything leading up to the Civil Rights Act having been the easy part of the struggle is breathtaking in its stark clarity.
During this same period however Moynihan began to sound the alarm concerning the dissolution of the Black family, predicting that the trend would ultimately undermine anti-poverty efforts. DPM gained lifelong enemies on the left for having dared to speak such a truth, only some of whom ever apologized to him years and even decades after it had become abundantly clear that he had been quite correct.
DPM’s cross-species jump to become a prominent policy advisor in the Nixon White House is amusing to watch. Many of DPM’s memos contain dark warnings concerning the New Left campus radicals. While DPM clearly viewed such people as illiberal thugs, as someone born in 1967 I can’t quite decide whether he genuinely viewed such people as a threat to democracy or whether he was simply manipulating a group of gullible Republicans. Perhaps both and someone who lived through this era should let me know what they think. Regardless, Moynihan paints a vivid picture of a deeply chaotic and misguided America which I am quite happy to have left to others to endure.
DPM’s writings of the time reveals the Nixon administration as deeply concerned with issues of poverty and race along with Moynihan’s growing disenchantment with the Vietnam War. Repeatedly he warns Nixon that what had been Johnson’s War in the public’s perception steadily transforming into Nixon’s burden. DPM pushed Milton Friedman’s proposal for a negative income tax hard, hoping to defuse what he saw as a catastrophic cycle of resentment over welfare programs.
Welfare reform remained Moynihan’s white whale throughout his career in the Senate. He championed meaningful reform legislation in 1989, and led a desperate effort to get the Clinton administration to address the subject in the early 1990s. Moynihan seemed to carry the Hillarycare bill primarily to leverage stronger action on welfare reform, and eventually he turned on the administration. At one point he even set up a meeting between Hillary Clinton and economist William Baumol in an effort to explain the doom of the approach. Later to her credit Senator Clinton graciously admitted that she ought to have listened.
In the end, DPM passionately opposed the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996, coming across as misguided in the process to this reader. Unfortunately it does not come across clearly in the book exactly what sort of welfare reform DPM would have pushed in 1993 if given the chance. In any case, the country will once again be facing these sort of issues as we face the painful task of putting the nation’s fiscal house in order.
It is impossible to read this book without yearning for Moynihan’s trained mind, keen intellect and above all moral courage to return to our national politics. Moynihan’s lifelong passionate support of parental choice served as simply one example of these towering qualities. Just in case no one else is going to suggest it, a Daniel Patrick Moynihan Institute dedicated to pursuing the still unfinished business of the Senator’s career could greatly enrich our public debate.
Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, Moynihan was one of the great figures of the United States Senate. When will we see another?