Goodbye, Senator: Pat Always Knew Where Money Was

During the memorable Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in 1976, the several contestants were asked which committee assignment they’d request if elected. There was much talk about the importance of the Foreign Affairs Committee, inspiring nods of grave approval from Democrats who had come to expect a New York Senator to think big thoughts about matters of great global import.

Candidate Daniel Patrick Moynihan, onetime ambassador to India and most recently the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, might have been expected to echo his opponents’ emphasis on foreign affairs and statecraft and the great issues of war and peace. But then again, he was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and he did not echo the thoughts of others as a matter of policy, nor was he all that interested in nods of approval from his party’s cognoscenti. More to the point, he understood that New York in 1976 was in crisis, and the crisis involved cash money. There was a place called the United States Senate where some people gave fine speeches about war and peace, and other people worked in cloakrooms or studied the rules or played with language to get cash money for their states.

When New York had the country’s largest delegation to Congress, and when its Governors and Senators were considered Presidential candidates in waiting, it could afford to look with scant regard on legislators with dreary assignments like, say, the Transportation Committee. Such posts were for pork-barrel hustlers; New York was above such gritty concerns. New York’s Senators, were expected to concern themselves with more elevated issues: the operational strength of tank divisions in East Germany; the domestic problems hampering Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer; the number of governments in postwar Italy.

But by the time Moynihan ran for Senate, New York had changed, and he was one of the very few people who appreciated that the old politics and old rules no longer applied. A new Governor named Hugh Carey began his administration in 1975 by announcing, famously, that “the days of wine and roses are over.” New York was on the verge of going broke.

And so in 1976, Daniel Patrick Moynihan-all tweed and bow ties and scholarship and diplomacy-announced that, if elected, he would request an assignment to the Senate Finance Committee. He would do this for the same reason that Willie Sutton decided to rob banks-except in Moynihan’s case, he would seek to withdraw funds that rightfully belonged elsewhere, that is, in New York.

In the tributes that followed Moynihan’s death on March 26 at age 76, some but not enough attention was paid to the ways in which he changed the position of United States Senator from New York. Because his demeanor and breadth of knowledge invited such windy descriptions as “scholar-statesman” and “philosopher-Senator,” some of Moynihan’s final press notices failed to convey his success in the scut work of delivering dollars to his home state. In recent years alone, Pat Moynihan somehow persuaded Washington to give New York $5 billion for building the New York Thruway decades ago Moynihan rewrote a federal highway bill so that New York (and other urban areas) could get more money for building mass transportation instead of pouring more concrete. Moynihan enlisted Congress and the White House to help convert the Farley Post Office Building into a new Penn Station, so that the city’s passenger-rail gateway would once again convey power and dignity. And Moynihan tinkered with Medicaid formulas to help New York cope with its health-care costs.

Most New Yorkers associate this prosaic and occasionally mind-numbing constituent work with the aldermanic habits of Moynihan’s onetime colleague, Alfonse D’Amato. And while it’s certainly true that Mr. D’Amato emphasized service delivery over sweeping legislation, he simply borrowed a portion of the Moynihan portfolio. Today, the Moynihan vision of what a New York Senator must be is borne out in the work of Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, who are more likely to hold a news conference to announce federal grants than they are to issue grand policy pronouncements. It’s not that the broader picture is no longer of concern to New Yorkers. But in a capital and an era in which power has moved south and west, a Senator from New York is obliged to deliver as well as to think.

Moynihan could do both. “He was the perfect blend of a professor and a politician, and was successful in both areas,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Urban Research Center at New York University. As long ago as the mid-1980′s, some people noticed that Moynihan contained multitudes, and they were none too happy about it: I recall a well-known neoconservative journalist complaining in print that the senior Senator from New York was spending too much time on “infrastructure”-you could picture his upper lip curling, like a Frenchman sizing up a Big Mac-and not enough on muscular Cold War issues. But by then, Moynihan already had decided that the story of the decade would be the decline and fall of the Soviet empire. And so he did, in fact, turn his attention to mere infrastructure, along with a dozen or so other domestic issues that affected the voters back home.

To cite just one example: He began preaching to all who would listen-and some who would not-of the revitalizing power of magnetic levitation. I had this conversation with him on at least three occasions, and I suspect others in more frequent touch with him long ago lost count. I knew the argument by heart: The technology for mag-lev trains was invented in New York, under the Triborough Bridge, but who is implementing it? Not us. The Japanese. Run a mag-lev train along the Thruway right-of-way and watch the city and region prosper like the old days.

The prospect of mag-lev trains shuttling up and down the Hudson Valley remains distant. But Pat Moynihan’s many other contributions to New York’s well-being surround us.