Sen. Moynihan, Wet and Dry


The Gentleman From New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, by Godfrey Hodgson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 480 pages, $35

I once poured for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And poured. And poured. The year was 1984, and I was a low-level aide for another lawmaker. Moynihan and my boss were on a charter flight to Albany to attend a conference on acid rain. My job was to sit in the jump seat behind Moynihan and keep his glass full of champagne. Moynihan kept me busy. When the flight landed, the senator darted toward a nest of reporters waiting in the terminal. "This will be a lively press conference," I thought.

It was, though not for the reason I thought. Moynihan's answers were as florid as his face, but they were utterly lucid and knowledgeable. This brief encounter left me with the suspicion that, like Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra, Moynihan actually works better with some adult beverages in his bloodstream.

That's smart-alecky speculation, of course, but it may just solve a mystery. In his new biography of Moynihan, British journalist Godfrey Hodgson aspires to describe "the interplay between ideas and action" throughout Moynihan's life. In the light of the senator's much-vaunted public record, however, a careful analysis of the book reveals that the story is not about "interplay" at all. Moynihan's words have often diverged from his deeds. In fact, there are really two Moynihans: one with great insight into the limits of government and the booby traps of social policy, the other with an unstinting devotion to federal power and a lockstep liberal voting record.

Apropos of nothing in particular, I will call them Moynihan Wet and Moynihan Dry.

Hodgson prefers narrative to intellectual history and thus provides little insight into the dual nature of Moynihan's intellectual character. After a placid early childhood, Hodgson tells us, Moynihan went through a painful period when his father abandoned his family to troubled circumstances in New York City. Moynihan Dry has often cited this experience in explaining his support for social programs.

Hodgson's narrative suggests that Moynihan Wet may have sprouted in the unlikely soil of the London School of Economics. In spite of its reputation as a nursery for Third World socialism, he says, the LSE actually employed some free market thinkers when Moynihan did graduate work there in the early 1950s. The account of the LSE influence is sketchy, however. Hodgson even quotes Moynihan as saying, "Nothing and no one at LSE ever disposed me to be anything but a New York Democrat."

After serving as a top aide to New York Gov. Averill Harriman and completing a Ph.D. at Tufts in 1961, Moynihan became assistant secretary of labor in the Kennedy administration. When Lyndon Johnson became president, the capital got its first major taste of Moynihan Dry. With speechwriter Richard N. Goodwin, he drafted LBJ's historic 1965 address at Howard University, which helped lay the intellectual foundation for racial preferences by articulating equal outcomes as more important than equal opportunities: "[I]t is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates….We seek not just freedom and opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result."

The speech drew heavily on a report that Moynihan had written on the "pathology" of the black family. Liberals who believed in the power of government to right all wrongs were annoyed by the notion of "pathology" (though it would later become conventional wisdom) as an explanation for poor blacks' problems. When the report became public, Moynihan Dry, despite his call for government action to help blacks, found himself the target of liberal vilification.

Enter Moynihan Wet. By this time, he had left the Labor Department to run in the Democratic primary for president of the New York City Council. He lost. He would spend the next few years teaching, writing, and challenging the liberal orthodoxy he had recently championed.

In 1967 Moynihan Wet gave a series of lectures about "the war on poverty," which he later collected in a book, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding. His summation of the fate of "community action" programs was bluntly skeptical: "This is the essential fact. The government did not know what it was doing. It had a theory. Or, rather, a set of theories. Nothing more."

In 1968 the well-known Democratic policy maker took the astonishing step of contributing to an anthology called Republican Papers. Moynihan Wet sounded close to conversion. In his contribution, he wrote: "Somehow liberals have been unable to acquire from life what conservatives seem to be endowed with at birth, namely a healthy skepticism of the powers of government agencies to do good."

Moynihan Dry and Wet fought most over racial preference. In 1968 Moynihan wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly titled "The New Racialism," which Hodgson unfortunately overlooks. Whereas Moynihan Dry had just advocated "equality of result," Moynihan Wet now grasped the unanticipated consequences: "That which was specifically forbidden by the Civil Rights Act is now explicitly (albeit covertly) required by the federal government. Employers are given quotas of the black employees they will hire, records of minority-group employment are diligently maintained, and censuses repeatedly taken."

Moynihan feared that the process would snowball. Trouble is, he wrote, ethnic groups will never have equal success in different fields because they value different kinds of success and excel at those they value most. "But government knows little of such variegations," he said, "and I very much fear that if we begin to become formal about quotas for this or that group, we will very quickly come to realize that these are instantly translated into quotas against." And then came the kicker: "Let me be blunt. If ethnic quotas are to be imposed on American universities and similarly quasipublic institutions, it is Jews who will be almost driven out."

Such comments drew the attention of Richard Nixon in his search for intellectual firepower for his incoming administration. Shocking the Democrats who still could remember Moynihan Dry's service in the previous administrations, Moynihan Wet signed on with Nixon as a domestic policy adviser. With proximity to power, though, Moynihan Dry returned. His major project was the Family Assistance Plan, a radical welfare overhaul that included a guaranteed annual income. Nixon embraced the plan and announced it in a nationwide address. The plan passed the House but died in the Senate. Moynihan Dry missed his biggest potential victory.

Hodgson attributes the bill's defeat to petty political infighting and Nixon's preoccupation with the Vietnam War. He misses the point. Though some observers at the time thought Moynihan's plan was a variation of Milton Friedman's negative income tax, it was something quite different. Rather than give cash assistance in place of social welfare programs, as Friedman had proposed, the plan would have been an addition to them—a massive expansion of the welfare state.

Martin Anderson, who served with Moynihan in the Nixon White House, wrote the definitive analysis of this plan in his book Welfare (oddly absent from Hodgson's endnotes). According to Anderson, Democratic Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana figured out that the plan would not only explode the budget but also discourage welfare recipients from working. "How do you justify that?" he asked an administration witness at a Senate hearing. "What possible logic is there to it?" The witness had no answer.

After this fiasco, Moynihan turned to foreign policy, first as ambassador to India, then as the U.S. representative to the United Nations. In 1976, he ran for the U.S. Senate against conservative incumbent James Buckley. He won by attacking Buckley's "extremism" and reluctance to back a federal bailout for New York City. Still, some hoped that the occupant of the Senate seat would turn out to be Moynihan Wet instead of Moynihan Dry.

Not a chance.

Year after year, vote after vote, Moynihan endeared himself to labor unions and the Washington establishment. In 1990 Congressional Quarterly's reference book Politics in America reflected on his career. On most domestic issues, his entry read, "Moynihan has been less intent on rethinking fundamental questions than on lining up emotionally with liberal Democrats in support of preserving the New Deal or the Great Society."

Some of his colleagues saw a touch of cynicism, the report went on, "since they remember when he was identified as a critic of these ideas." Perhaps this assessment is unfair. Did his split personality reflect genuine ambivalence rather than crass political pandering? Hodgson occasionally alludes to this question without resolving it.

Moynihan Wet made occasional appearances but never came close to erasing the record of Moynihan Dry. In 1999 and 2000, he won a good deal of press—as well as praise from Republicans—for supporting partial privatization of Social Security. A small step in the right direction, perhaps, but he would have left the program's basic structure in place. Moreover, Moynihan Dry had not been above playing demagogue on the issue. In 1981, after Reagan budget director David Stockman had proposed some modest cuts, the senator introduced a resolution condemning the idea as "a breach of faith with those aging Americans who have contributed to the Social Security system."

During a 1995 visit to Arizona, Moynihan Wet offered a faint echo of his 1968 piece on racial preference: "There's a tendency to get more and more groups involved, and…when there are people who will take advantage, you'll end up with unanticipated consequences." That same year, the Senate considered a measure forbidding ethnic and gender preferences in contracting by the legislative branch. Moynihan Dry voted to kill it. Three years later, he voted the same way when Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky offered an anti-preference amendment to a transportation bill.

The old skepticism of Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding briefly resurfaced in 1993, when the incoming Clinton team began making pronouncements on welfare. Moynihan wrote that he had been "repeatedly impressed by the number of members of the Clinton administration who have assured me with great vigor that something or other is known in an area of social policy which, to the best of my understanding, is not known at all." After this flash of Moynihan Wet, Moynihan Dry became a rabid opponent of welfare reform. Literally speaking of an "apocalypse," as Hodgson recounts, he foresaw "children on grates, because there's no money in the states and cities to care for them."

Nothing of the sort happened, of course, which undercuts Hodgson's description of the senator as a "prophet." The comment also points to a problem that plagued Moynihan throughout his career: His affection for the well-turned phrase often trumped prudence and careful thought.

Take the Moynihan Report of 1965. The notion of family pathology was sensitive enough, but then he had to add this line: "The very essence of the male animal, from the bantam rooster to the four-star general, is to strut." In 1994 a Senate hearing on childbearing by the very young took a strange turn when he remarked: "I mean, if you were a biologist, you could find yourself talking about speciation here," that is, the creation of a new species. "It has something to do [with] a changed condition in biological circumstances."

Such lapses may have diminished Moynihan's political effectiveness. Given the dominance of Moynihan Dry in the public record, that's probably all to the good. Still, as the "gentleman from New York" retires from public life at the end of this Congress, one must look to the close of his career with a twinge of regret: Moynihan Wet would have made one hell of a senator.

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.