Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s widow, Elizabeth, was puzzled
to learn that her husband’s name had been cited in the Senate debate over gay
Republican Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and John Cornyn of
Texas are the New Yorker’s unlikely new acolytes. “Senator Moynihan also wrote
that ‘the principle objective of American government at every level should be
to see that children are born into intact families and that they remain so,’”
Mr. Brownback said on July 12, explaining his opposition to gay marriage.
Mrs. Moynihan didn’t recognize that line from any of her
husband’s 19 books or many articles. “That doesn’t sound like him,” she said.
Mrs. Moynihan has a point. The quote, it turns out, is a heavily
doctored version of something Moynihan said on Meet the Press in 1993. The gist is the same-Moynihan, after all,
had been sounding the alarm on the collapse of two-parent families since 1965.
But the original quote lacks the total confidence so characteristic of the
“What do we do?” NBC’s Tim Russert had asked his old boss during
a discussion of social policy.
“We state, right now, the principal social objective of American
national government at every level to be-if it can have any effect-is to see
that children are born to intact families and that they remain so and that this
become an object of the churches, of the society at large. And if you work at
it, work at it, work at it, in about 40 to 50 years, you may have something to
show for it,” Moynihan replied.
The Republicans’ doctoring of Moynihan’s quote reflects a broader
tendency to cut corners in making a case against gay marriage. Call it, says
the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch, “defining Moynihan down,” a nice
echo of Moynihan’s famous 1993 speech in which he coined the phrase “defining
deviancy down.” The central leap is from the widely accepted notion that
children do better with two parents to a hazy link between gay marriage in
Massachusetts and the high divorce rates that preceded it by more than 40
“People try to use muddled arguments when they won’t use their
real arguments,” said Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who noted that Moynihan was an early ally of the gay-rights
movement on the issue of employment discrimination and voted against the 1996
Defense of Marriage Act. The real argument against gay marriage, he said, “is
that one [homosexual] is enough, two together are revolting.”
Political opposition to gay marriage does rely on those who think
homosexuality is a sin and even that gay sex should be criminal. But there are
scholars, like David Blankenhorn at the Institute for American Values in New
York, who make an argument against gay marriage that doesn’t tacitly veer into
bigotry. Putting it as clearly as it comes, he says gay marriage is “an effect
that will become a cause” of the collapse of marriage. Like the Senators last
week, he leans on Moynihan, who started talking about the crisis in American
families in a then-controversial, now-obvious 1965 report entitled The Negro Family and the Case for National
“If there was one thing he did make clear over and over again, it
was the importance of the two-parent, mother-father, married-couple family,”
Mr. Blankenhorn said.
The problem with this is that, as the report’s title indicates,
Moynihan was concerned about African-American children and their single
mothers, not gay and lesbian couples who are unlikely to find themselves with
unwanted babies. The Senator seems not to have considered same-sex marriage
directly. In his “defining deviancy down” speech, Moynihan approvingly quotes
criticism of “alternative family structures;” but he added that, for his purposes,
“alternative” means “other than two-parent families.” He doesn’t dwell on the
gender of the parents.
Mrs. Moynihan said she thought her husband would likely have
supported same-sex marriage.
“It’s totally out of context [for the Republicans] to quote Pat
on something like that,” she said. “It was the breakup of the family that he
was objecting to. Gay marriage, that’s people saying marriage is good.”
Most of Moynihan’s old aides
and colleagues declined to speak for a Senator whose views were hard to predict
while he lived. Harvard’s Nathan Glazer e-mailed that “perhaps James Q. Wilson
would risk a quote.” Mr. Wilson, famous for his work on “broken windows” and
crime, wouldn’t channel Moynihan’s views on gay marriage, but added, “I doubt
he would have favored amending [the Constitution] in order to define marriage.”
On that question, too, Senators Brownback and Cornyn have chosen
the wrong ally. Moynihan’s views were clear: “There is nothing inherent in
American democracy,” he said in 1995, “that suggests we amend our basic and
abiding law to deal with the fugitive tendencies of a given moment.”
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