New York's Senator

Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Legacy

Many people thought that after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, he would place one of his first phone calls to fellow Democrat and New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Having successfully worked for four presidents in a row (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford), Moynihan as a third-term senator had been waiting a long time for a collegial occupant of the White House to implement serious welfare reform. But the phone call never came. Regarding Moynihan as a dithering, cantankerous old man, the Clintons ignored him. And they weren’t subtle about it. A White House official told Time, "We’ll roll right over him if we have to."

The result was mayhem for the White House. The fact that Moynihan’s ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee had come about because Clinton appointed Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) his Treasury secretary barely mollified the New Yorker. Moynihan, who died March 26 at the age of seventy-six, put every presidential appointment he could through the ringer. He threatened to hold Clinton’s health-care policy hostage to welfare reform, and did indeed both delay it and undermine it. With his astonishing gift for phrases, Moynihan made quotable fun of Clinton, calling his welfare ideas, for example, "boob bait for the Bubbas."

All the while he attended, as a good senator should, to the needs of his home state. "Every major piece of social legislation in the last seventy years has had to pass through the toll gates of Southern committee chairmen," he said, chiding the Clintons on the health-care proposals that threatened New York teaching hospitals. "Now there’s a New Yorker who’s chairman of the Finance Committee for the first time in 155 years. You can say Senator Moynihan is devoted to his constituents in New York. Put that down." Just to turn the knife a bit more, he added later that destroying teaching hospitals was a "sin against the Holy Ghost."

It’s little wonder that the Clinton people had trouble with him. He was a man of contradictions-committed to the aspirations of the New Deal and the belief that government could improve the life of its citizens. Yet at the same time he regularly cited Rossi’s Law, named after the sociologist Peter Rossi, that "the expected value for any measured effect of a social program is zero."

His critics said that he careened from left to right and back again. His biographer, Godfrey Hodgson, has a more trenchant explanation. While Moynihan never stopped thinking of himself as a liberal Democrat, says Hodgson, he shared President Richard Nixon’s resentment of orthodox liberalism—the "patriciate" he used to call it. He rose to the top of American society, but he nursed his class resentments even as he wore Harris Tweeds and relished the honors conferred by Harvard and Oxford.

He had his loyalties, and they were personal. He cared about the working class, and he knew its troubles well. He had worked at menial jobs from the age of ten, when his alcoholic journalist father walked out on the family he had uprooted from Tulsa, Oklahoma to East Harlem. Moynihan later glamorized his upbringing, but no one can seriously doubt that his daily exposure to the inequities of America’s class structure seared his soul.

He knew from his own childhood the despair of a family abandoned by its father, and the ferocious hardness demanded of the single mother. He made it up and out of what sociologists later called a "female-headed household," but he knew that most young men hadn’t and wouldn’t. "Violence," he said later, "is a routine way of life with destroyed and broken families." He applied Karl Marx’s term "lumpenproletariat"—the lowest stratum in society that Marx said was anarchistic rather than revolutionary—to desperately poor black neighborhoods, but also to the equally poor Irish neighborhoods he had once known. He saw early that the gulf between this lowest class and the true working class was widening, and that the working class was becoming deeply angry about crime and perceived racial favoritism.

His immensely controversial 1965 government report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," argued that three centuries of deprivation had destroyed black family structure, which languished in a "tangle of pathology" produced by welfare dependency and unemployment. He argued that black children reared in fatherless homes found it hard to adjust to the nation’s essentially patriarchal society, especially when they were also confronting ongoing racial injustice and trying to overcome poverty. Civil rights laws, he warned the Johnson administration, were not going to produce racial equality. He was denounced for blaming the victim.

In his 1970 memo to President Nixon he argued that race relations had been rubbed raw by "hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers" of all political stripes. A period of "benign neglect" of race as a political issue would help everyone calm down. What actually ensued, of course, was an uproar that didn’t fully end for some twenty-five years, by which time almost everyone recognized that federal social programs designed to aid the poor and minorities weren’t working. Moynihan had been arguing for a long time that welfare had to be tied to employment, but when the Clinton administration came ’round to this point of view it proposed reform that was far too harsh for Moynihan’s taste. "Shame on the president," he said, for leaving children to suffer in poverty.

So why, then, did Moynihan agree to support his old adversary, Hillary Clinton, for his Senate seat, after she made the deferential pilgrimage to his remote country place in upstate New York? No one who really knows has yet revealed the story publicly. But I’m assuming that the testy old warhorse has left behind his memoirs, Churchillian-style, correcting history and settling scores.

Published in the 2003-04-11 issue: 

Julia Vitullo-Martin edited Breaking Away: The Future of Cities (Twentieth Century Fund Press). She was a Vista Volunteer, a civil rights worker, and an antiwar protester during the sixties.

Also by this author
Radical Son

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads