New York’s Moynihan: A Museum’s Tribute

Growing up in Buffalo, Tim Russert knew nothing about one of the city’s landmarks, the Prudential building, designed by Louis Sullivan. But then, as a young lawyer, he went to work for a newly elected U.S. Senator named Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a gentleman who had a bit of an interest in urban design (along with social policy, infrastructure, foreign affairs, reading scores, trade, ethnicity and several other fields too weighty for mention in an 800-word column).

Somebody in Buffalo had a notion to rip down the Prudential building and replace it with a parking lot. Only Daniel Patrick Moynihan could see that this was an assault on the city’s dignity, and he launched a campaign to save a landmark that even the Tim Russerts of Western New York didn’t appreciate. “Pat would not let that happen,” Mr. Russert recalled. “He said, ‘You know, people [in Buffalo] may not appreciate this politically, but some things are just worth doing.’” Mr. Russert disagreed with his boss’ assessment of Buffalo’s civic leaders. “I think this will reap enormous political benefits,” the young aide told the Senator. “You’ll see.”

After the building was saved, Mr. Russert arranged for the Senator to cut a ribbon and then to pay a visit to Buffalo’s crusty mayor, Jimmy Griffin, a political legend in Western New York. Mr. Russert was pleased with himself, convinced that Mr. Griffin would fall over himself to express the city’s appreciation to the Senator-and thus prove the boss wrong.

When the Senator arrived in Mr. Griffin’s office, he was thinking characteristically big thoughts. “Mr. Mayor,” he said, “mark my words: There will be a day when people will get on Lufthansa Airways in Munich and fly to Buffalo to admire that building.”

Jimmy Griffin looked at the Senator: The moment that Mr. Russert had been anticipating had now arrived, the moment when the mayor of the second-largest city in New York State would express the gratitude of its hard-working citizens for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s vision and leadership.

Mr. Griffin’s mouth began to move.

“Bullshit, Paddy,” he said.

Well, nobody ever said that being a public intellectual is an easy calling. All these years later, Mr. Russert can laugh about this story, because he knows now what he didn’t know then: Pat Moynihan was right about nearly everything, even the political landscape of Buffalo circa the late 1970′s.

Mr. Russert’s story was but one of dozens told at a symposium on the life and times of New York’s Moynihan, held on March 29 at the New York Academy of Medicine. The symposium kicked off a months-long commemoration of the late Senator at the Museum of the City of New York, just across the street from the academy in the neighborhood that educated Daniel Patrick Moynihan, East Harlem.

Mr. Russert was one of nine panelists who discussed various aspects of Moynihan’s life, times and career-and truth be told, they could hardly do justice to the man’s breadth of interests and expertise. They did, however, ably convey the idea that New York and the nation were well and truly served by the former shoeshine boy who became one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers and legislators.

In the words of columnist E.J. Dionne, Daniel Patrick Moynihan “defined politics up,” a play on the famous Moynihan contention that society has defined deviancy down-a phrase he used in a speech to the Association for a Better New York. According to another panelist, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, the Senator’s listeners on that day were expecting a speech about the budget, and got a lecture on sociology and culture instead. They didn’t get it at the time, she said. But they do now.

As most of us do. Several panelists noted that some of Moynihan’s controversial assertions, like his report on black families in 1965, no longer strike people as particularly controversial because, like the ABNY crowd, we get it now. We understand that poor, minority children raised without the support and presence of their fathers find it difficult to break the cycle of poverty and dependence. Why? He blamed white racism-and not, as Moynihan’s critics believed he was saying, the victims themselves.

Pat Moynihan came to public notice in the late 1950′s, when he wrote a groundbreaking report on-are you ready for this?-the epidemic of automobile accidents in New York. Long before Ralph Nader asserted that we were unsafe at any speed, Moynihan noticed that too many people were killing themselves on highways.

Pat Moynihan noticed lots of things before anybody else did, and he was unafraid to tell you what conclusions he drew based not on ideology, but on observation. Everybody, he said, is entitled to his or her opinions, but that entitlement does not extend to facts.

The symposium on March 29 and the museum exhibit remind us that Daniel Patrick Moynihan remains a vital presence in our lives.