Collections of letters are usually academic exercises or vanity projects, rarely read and containing little practical wisdom. The great exception comes from Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary.
This is an autobiography written in real time. It offers a portrait of an American civic original, with an exuberant personality and a vibrant mind, both an optimist and a skeptic, full of a passion for putting ideas into action. And while the book doubles as an intimate history of the second half of the 20th century, its primary impact on me was something more than nostalgia: it made realize how much we need more Moynihans in our politics. No senator then or since deserves the high praise offered by The Economist after his death: “a philosopher-politician-diplomat who two centuries earlier would not have been out of place among the founding fathers.”
The trajectory of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s life reflects well on American meritocracy. He was a barkeep’s son and a member of the Longshoremen’s Union before becoming a professor, an adviser to presidents of both parties, a U.N. Ambassador, and finally a U.S. Senator. He was a proud eccentric, combining flinty opinions, prophetic insight and genuine warmth—a love for county, city, and life itself. All of it comes through in his letters, from a young man to an old man, conversing and cajoling some of the great figures of his time.
There he is advising President Nixon on the content of his first inaugural address, and warning administration aides—in advice that applies to President Obama today—that while “The pragmatic mind in politics tends to underestimate, even to be unaware of, the importance of moral authority…moral authority is a form of political power.”
The rhythms of his writing retain their punch: “The campaign itself had been a routine exercise: Republican moralism. Democratic hysteria. Voter indifference.” Remarkably, his self-written newsletters to constituents continue to read well and provide civic illumination long after their times have passed. Sometimes the vividness of his prose became an enemy, as when the prophetic and unfairly maligned Moynihan Report discussed the breakdown of the African-American family in too vivid terms, hanging the memorable phrase “benign neglect” around his neck, making him unwelcome on many college campuses for a generation.
Some of the letters are a form of confessional—reflections of regret after Watergate (“Have I been a fool or whore or both?”) and records the independence that causes him to decide against an appointment to be librarian to Congress (“I don’t want to have to live conditional on their approval.”)
His wit and tone is well captured as he confronts his critics, in this case from Archbishop Moore: “If we are going to continue this correspondence, we really ought to set some groundrules. Politics is not an exact science, any more I should think than theology. But it does benefit from a certain disciplined adherence to texts.”
The Moynihan that emerges in these letters is engaging and unfailingly civil, armed with statistics and a sweeping view of history. He could be surprisingly thin-skinned—unlike many politicians, his was a sensitive soul. But it is clear that his counsel was sought by presidents because he brought more light than heat to the conversation. He thought with a sense of historic perspective and he always felt the possibility as well as the limits of government action. He believed that government could improve the lives of its citizens, but he recognized that government overreach could create unintended consequences and provoke political backlash.
That is the enduring aspect of Moynihan’s example, the wisdom which still works. But in reading his letters I was struck by the sad sense that he, like Lincoln, might not have succeeded in electoral politics today. He did not come from money and was proud to be called the worst fundraiser in all of Congress—an old fashioned approach which did not diminish his vote getting ability. And rather unfashionably he believed in working across the aisle to promote progress with civility and stability.
Even more wistfully, he was a passionate generalist in a time in which our ideas and expertise have become more and more silo-ed. This bland specialization is threatening to take something essential out of our democracy—the flash of bright individuals who illuminate the landscape with honest insight, fully-formed personalities rather than blow-dried ideologues or party apparatchiks.
Moynihan embodied what Ambassador Charles Hill in his recent (and excellent) book, Grand Strategy, recognizes as the essential skill for a statesman—a multidisciplinary perspective on problem solving, which causes Hill to recommend the study of literature at the heart of statecraft. Moynihan understood the human condition, not in abstractions such as “the people,” but in terms of individual actions and incentives. He saw the big chess board. And so he was proven right again and again throughout his 24 years in the senate: right on the fall of communism, right on the closely linked anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism of the developing world, right on the necessity of welfare reform, right on the importance of fathers to the structure of a civil society, and right on respecting the immigrant heritage of our nation.
For most of my lifetime, Moynihan had simply been the Senator from New York, unusually thoughtful and a prolific author, but it seemed that was the model senators should follow. But as I was writing my first book, Independent Nation, I wanted to include the story of his pivotal senate primary against Bella Abzug in 1976 as a case study of how centrists could prevail in partisan primaries (he easily won the general election against conservative incumbent James Buckley, while Abzug would have likely lost). Moynihan was gracious enough to agree to an interview by phone. He was feeling his years a bit, but his voice still had that distinctive chirp and he remained unfailingly kind, even when correcting my manuscript. It turned out to be the last interview of his long life.
Toward the end of the interview, I asked him what quote he would like to lead the chapter summarizing his political philosophy. He said he’d get back to me, then called two days later with the following quote, which coincidentally closes the book, dated March 2003: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is its politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
This is a Zen koan of American political thought, a perfect yin and yang. It grows more profound the more you walk around it, because it is balanced and true. Armed with historic perspective, Daniel Patrick Moynihan could do what many elected officials cannot—express the spiritual dimension of our democracy, not as a partisan but as a patriot doing his part to perpetuate the American experiment. That is why we need more Moynihans in our political life.