The Post-Liberal Lion: Moynihan’s Roaring Life

The Gentleman from New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan , by Godfrey Hodgson, Houghton Mifflin, 452 pages, $38.

It is a truism about politics that so many giants look large only in hindsight; while they were in their prime, Harry Truman seemed like the failed haberdasher he once was, Winston Churchill an erratic warmonger, Franklin Roosevelt a dandy lightweight and, of course, Abraham Lincoln a simple-minded buffoon. Professional nostalgists who pine for the days when, as the cliché has it, giants walked the land are either too cynical or–dare one say it?–too envious to recognize contemporary greatness.

Occasionally, however, chroniclers of the present find it in their hearts to declare a living office-holder to be a treasure made for the ages. It must be with sweet satisfaction that Daniel Patrick Moynihan has read the political obituaries published since he announced that he would not seek a fifth term in the U.S. Senate this year. At the end of 46 years in public service, Senator Moynihan is being treated like a strikeout artist pitching his last season, or a pop diva on a farewell tour. His fame, it has been decided, is certain; his accomplishments, undeniable; his impact, profound. Even before he announced his retirement, historians and journalists gathered in Washington on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1997 to commemorate the Moynihan legacy–an extraordinary tribute in any case, all the more noteworthy in that the subject of the celebration was alive and well.

As Godfrey Hodgson implicitly notes in his insightful but uneven and somewhat disorganized biography of the Senator, Mr. Moynihan’s transition from academic to politician to icon–to a man described with justice as the nation’s greatest intellectual-statesman since Thomas Jefferson–was by no means certain a quarter century ago. During his make-or-break Senate campaign in 1976, when he faced a crowded field of fellow Democrats competing for the right to take on incumbent James L. Buckley, Pat Moynihan suffered the slanders of liberal Democrats who regarded him as a not-so-subtle racist, a partisan turncoat (he had served under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford), an ambitious showboat and a hired gun for the fledgling neoconservative movement. They bitterly resented his entry into a campaign that was supposed to end with Bella Abzug triumphant, ready to bring West Side politics to the Senate. When The New York Times famously, and decisively, endorsed Mr. Moynihan instead of Ms. Abzug on publisher Arthur (Punch) Sulzberger’s orders, the Times editorial page editor, John Oakes, published his dissent on the newspaper’s letters page. And when Mr. Moynihan defeated Abzug by some 10,000 votes (less than 2 percent), the West Side set was apoplectic, persuaded (for reasons that ranged from ideology to–how to put it nicely?–a baser set of prejudices) that a satanic Nixon apologist with suspect attitudes toward black people (hadn’t he written that terrible report about fatherless black families that no good liberal would dare read?) had stolen what was Abzug’s by right.

More than two decades later, the bow-tied antagonist of post-New Frontier liberalism stood on the Senate floor to denounce the elimination of Title IV-A of the Social Security Act, better known as welfare. Senator Moynihan was one of a mere handful of Democrats who dared to vote against the Republican-sponsored measure, which President Clinton signed into law during his 1996 re-election campaign. As the bill’s passage became inevitable, Mr. Moynihan bitterly denounced an administration that, perversely, had won the affections of those liberals who had scorned the Senator for so many years: “Are there no serious persons in this administration who can say, ‘Stop, stop right now! No, we won’t have this!’?” Senator Moynihan’s attempt to rally his party and the Clinton White House to block the welfare bill had, in one of Mr. Hodgson’s more memorable passages, a King Lear quality to it. “If you think things can’t be worse,” the Senator raged in the pages of The New York Times Book Review , “just you wait until there are a third of a million children in the streets. That’s what you are talking about–children on grates, because there’s no money … to care for them.” That sounds very much like the last old-fashioned liberal. And yet the Senator’s uneasy and usually downright hostile relationship with his party’s Left is one of Mr. Hodgson’s recurring themes.

Mr. Hodgson is a longtime friend of both the Senator and the Senator’s formidable wife, Liz, and this is an affectionate biography. The book contains nice touches that only a friend could deliver. Mr. Hodgson notes, and shows, that “the flamboyance of [the Senator's] manner conceals careful calculation of probabilities.” Mr. Moynihan’s easy re-election campaigns seemed very much like old-fashioned storefront operations, but they were very complex indeed: Mr. Hodgson shows how campaign manager Liz Moynihan loaded up the campaign treasury early and often to scare away opponents, and how she influenced campaign strategy to counter a threat from then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani in 1988. (Mr. Giuliani eventually chose not to run.)

Despite his obvious affection for his subject, Mr. Hodgson tackles such delicate topics as the Senator’s reputation as a stern taskmaster with staff, his drinking habits (long the stuff of legend–and myth), his contradictions and his over-the-top flattery of people like Richard Nixon. Mr. Hodgson notes that Mr. Moynihan, writing in 1972, praised Nixon for his “‘Stevensonian’ concept of civility.” Mmmm. Evidence to support this notion must have been included on that 18-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes. To Mr. Hodgson’s credit, he doesn’t evade or apologize when things get sticky.

So Mr. Hodgson is both a friend and a keen observer. He is also–and this is important–an Englishman. As any viewer of BBC newscasts knows, Her Majesty’s subjects may have lost an empire, but they retain their astonishing knowledge of the nations, regions and subcontinents out there beyond their sceptered isle. Mr. Hodgson lingers over the global aspects of Mr. Moynihan’s career–his tenure as ambassador to India; his memorable tenure as Washington’s U.N. ambassador; his alliance with Scoop Jackson Democrats during the 1970′s, when the Soviets seemed to be on the march in the Third World. The account of Mr. Moynihan’s stormy eight months at the United Nations is one of the book’s strongest chapters. To the horror of Henry Kissinger and others, Mr. Moynihan decided that the United States ought to hear no more lectures about justice and democracy from tinpot dictators and bloody butchers. And so he responded with justified outrage, while his superiors cowered in the corners of conventional diplomacy. Picture a stern-visaged Ambassador Moynihan casting a defiant vote against the odious resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism.

Not surprisingly, when Mr. Hodgson matches his subject with a historical figure, he does not choose one of Mr. Moynihan’s distinguished predecessors in the Senate, but rather Benjamin Disraeli, the novelist and imperialist Tory who served as British Prime Minister twice in the late 19th century. It’s actually not such a stretch: Mr. Moynihan has always been handy with words (though he has yet to produce a Washington novel), and Disraeli and the Senator share a knack for infrastructure (old Dizzy used Her Majesty’s government as collateral to get the Suez Canal built; Mr. Moynihan has used his reputation to back the re-creation of Penn Station and the restoration of Pennsylvania Avenue, among other projects).

A wider perspective on the Senator’s career is very welcome, but the reader suffers when it comes to matters closer to home. Mr. Hodgson is rather perfunctory in his treatment of New York politics. For example, when he describes a St. Patrick’s Day function in New York in 1977, Mr. Hodgson reports that the newly elected Senator Moynihan was booed by I.R.A. supporters in a crowd of Irish-Americans. (English writers are prone to finding I.R.A. supporters in any gathering of more than three people with names like Moynihan.) Mr. Moynihan had been critical of the I.R.A.; thus the boos. Mr. Hodgson finds it ironic that an Irish-American crowd would taunt “the first Irishman from New York in the Senate for generations.” Well, he did beat a lad called James Buckley, who occupied the seat held by Robert F. Kennedy, who had beaten somebody called Kenneth Keating. Actually, when either Hillary Clinton or Rick Lazio enters the Senate next year, it will be the first time in generations that an Irish-American has not represented New York in the Senate (save for the two years when Charles Goodell, appointed in 1968 to replace the murdered Kennedy, served side by side with Jacob Javits).

At one point Mr. Hodgson stumbles on a tantalizing anecdote, but it’s not clear that he appreciates its significance. When Mr. Giuliani was chosen as grand marshal of the Columbus Day Parade in 1987, the Senator grumbled, “Thank you, Mario!” Mr. Hodgson explains that the Senator believed then-Governor Mario Cuomo was somehow behind the selection of Mr. Giuliani at the time when there was “much talk of [Mr. Giuliani] running against Moynihan” in 1988. It seemed to Mr. Moynihan that Mr. Cuomo was propping up one of his potential challengers. A New Yorker might have seized on that “thank you, Mario” to examine the rivalry between these two larger-than-life Democrats, both of them Catholic intellectuals. Perhaps–in tribute to Mr. Moynihan’s studies of ethnicity–a local author might have glanced at the famously stormy Italian-Irish relationship. Not Mr. Hodgson, who is intent on the global reach of the great man.

As for a memorable verbal dart Mr. Moynihan aimed at the Clinton White House during the health care debate, Mr. Hodgson completely botches it. He knows that Mr. Moynihan was not persuaded of the urgency of health care reform and not much interested in health insurance–but he was deadly serious about welfare reform, an issue Mr. Clinton had emphasized in his 1992 campaign. Once the President took office, however, health care was given priority over welfare reform, to the Senator’s enduring chagrin. Frustrated with the White House’s priorities, he denounced Mr. Clinton’s promises of welfare reform as “boob bait for bubbas,” meaning, of course, that Mr. Clinton was simply baiting white rednecks with his talk of–nudge, nudge–welfare reform.

In Mr. Hodgson’s account, however, the “boob bait” remark is directed at the Clinton health care proposal. This mistake is based on a grave misreading of America’s political language. Mr. Moynihan, master of that lexicon, knows that you wouldn’t use health care reform as bait for America’s bubbas; welfare reform, which inevitably raises the specter of race, is another story.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s place as one of America’s great scholar-politicians is ensured, and Mr. Hodgson’s earnest biography does justice to that reputation. But The Gentleman from New York is not a definitive account, and not simply because of the book’s flaws. After all, Penn Station has yet to be rebuilt; the nation has yet to build the magnetic levitation trains that Mr. Moynihan has championed–and it will be years before we learn whether Mr. Moynihan was right in predicting that children will take up residence on grates for lack of welfare dollars. Godfrey Hodgson does remind us, though, that among Mr. Moynihan’s many public roles is that of prophet.

Terry Golway is city editor of The Observer.