The Gentleman from New York

(This column was first published in the January 4, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

    "On March 16, 1997, the senior senator from New York received a somewhat puzzling letter from the vice president of the United States. 'Daniel,' it began, unpromisingly, 'I was very pleased to learn about the recent birth of your twins.'

    "On it plunged. 'Tipper joins me in sending our warmest congratulations and best wishes to you. We know that everyone close to you shares the excitement of the new additions to your family.' It ended with the vice president's expression of his hopes for 'a happy and successful life for you and your new babies.' Red faces for Al Gore, champion within the Clinton administration of technological innovation and administrative efficiency, and for those on his staff who failed to catch this early April Fool as it floated out of the computerized good will bank. For what the senator was celebrating that March 16 was not the arrival of twins -- it was, after all, almost forty years since the birth of the Moynihans' last child -- but that biblical milestone, his seventieth birthday."

    I enjoyed that passage from Godfrey Hodgson's The Gentleman From New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000) not only for its put-down of its impersonal political application of technology but also because it gives me a kind of leg up on this senator whom I hold in such high regard. It shows that I am exactly two months the senator's senior.

    Now this accurately-designated gentleman will retire to his home on McDougall Road in Pindars Corners, New York (a location in Delaware County southeast of Oneonta that doesn't even appear on my topographic maps) and, at a time when we can ill afford his departure, we will lose a brilliant legislator.

    Indeed Senator Moynihan has established himself through his 24 years as our premier state legislator in Washington as an individual well worth our highest regard. Known throughout his career as an independent thinker, he has often taken controversial stands -- some of which made me uncomfortable -- but his elegant presentation of his positions has always made even those who disagree with him think about them seriously.

    From this book: "'He is the most successful intellectual in electoral politics,' said Rob Shapiro, who worked for Moynihan from 1981 to 1986. 'He is often lampooned as a figure out of the Victorian Raj. But he has a great intuitive grasp of popular politics. He always manages to position himself as a critic of the conventional wisdom. He sees what other people don't see. But his great political art is to point it out....' He is not interested in power, Shapiro judges, he is more interested in reputation. 'That's why the appeal of the Senate has been so great. He likes the sense of personal dignity, the way it allows him to be a gentleman.'"

    There is, of course, a down side to this. Senator Moynihan reminds me of my good friend Peter Hilton, the English mathematician now at the State University in Binghamton. They are both so convincing in argument that I believe that each could win an audience to one side of an issue and then immediately afterwards win the same audience to the opposing side. (Peter and I wrote two papers together. In both cases I prepared the initial draft and his subsequent modifications only amounted to the addition of a couple of nots to my verb forms. Rereading the text I came to agree with him.)

    Despite this sense of personal disempowerment, I will sorely miss Senator Moynihan. Will we ever again receive a mailing from a politician that is really worth reading? Let us at least hope that we can continue to turn to his writing in retirement.

    We know Senator Moynihan best for his positions on national issues such as secrecy in government -- among his 15 books is the recent best seller Secrecy: The American Experience (Yale, 1998) -- and health care reform, for his opposition to the Clinton proposals. But we have heard much less about his services to this state. In this regard, consider what two of his Republican colleagues had to say to Hodgson:

    "'I'm not one of those who thinks he was an ineffective legislator,' says former Republican Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Bob Packwood of Oregon. 'And boy! Was he looking out for the interests of New York!' And former Majority Leader Bob Dole says, 'Pat was always perceived as the intellectual of the Senate, but he was obviously effective in a different way. At the committee level he was very protective of the interests of New York. He was known for his candor and fairness. But Pat can count. He always understood where the votes were.' But he wasn't a conventional legislative craftsman? I asked. 'No, but he was a big-picture craftsman.'"

    And Hodgson adds his own take on the senator's representation: "His political interest lay in getting the utmost for his constituents from the only source capable of delivering resources on the requisite scale: the federal government."

    Unfortunately, Senator Moynihan's reputation with liberals has been dogged by a single phrase taken out of context in a memorandum he prepared for President Nixon 30 years ago. Hodgson sets the record straight on this sad episode: "'The time may have come,' [Moynihan] wrote, 'when the issue of race could benefit from a period of "benign neglect." The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over by hysterics, paranoids and boodlers on all sides. We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.' The administration should avoid 'situations in which extremists of either race are given opportunities for martyrdom, heroics, histrionics or whatever.' In particular, he suggested, it should ignore the Black Panthers, who were almost defunct as a group until the Chicago police raided their headquarters and turned them into heroes." It seems clear to me that the key phrase in that memo is, "Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades," but that phrase is never included with the 'benign neglect' quote.

    The Gentleman from New York traces Moynihan's progress from Hell's Kitchen bootblack and dockworker through academic stints at Harvard, MIT, Syracuse and Wesleyan, service as ambassador to India and U.S. representative to the United Nations to his four terms as senator. It is a wonderful road to follow and Hodgson left me with even greater appreciation for the only candidate for Our Man in Washington.

    The book ends with many fine accolades, none better than Murray Light's encomium (and apology) in the October 8 Buffalo News. I close this commentary with a few on-the-target excerpts from Hodgson:

    "Charles Blitzer focused on three characteristics that have been emphasized again and again in this book. First was Moynihan's 'almost uncanny ability to fix upon the issues that are not yet widely noticed or discussed,' like the crises in the African American family and in welfare, and many more. Second, he underlined Moynihan's consistency. While he was often criticized for having abandoned or betrayed one cause or another, Blitzer maintained that Moynihan had always in his long career sought the best data. If they supported his position, he would eloquently proclaim the fact; but if the data were insufficient he would counsel caution; and if the data did not support his previous belief, he would follow the data. And the third and most unappreciated characteristic of his way of thinking was his ability 'to transform the very nature of a familiar, even somewhat shopworn debate by looking at a problem in a new way.'"

    "What Pat teaches is that not only are there no utopias, there are no solutions, not in the state or in the completely uncontrolled market. There are only approximations, only the continuing struggle for decency, for morality, for equality of opportunity and for respect....

    "He came to believe that the function of social science was not to propose action to government, but to monitor it. But, unlike many of his traveling companions and some of his closest friends, he never abandoned his faith in the capacity, and the duty, of government to make society better, and especially for the poor and their children.

    "He remains skeptical of the efficacy of political and government action. But this is not because of any ideological objection to government, still less a preference for private or corporate action. His skepticism is simply part of a pessimism, almost a melancholy, about the workings of the universe and its human inhabitants which is culturally, if not theologically, religious in nature, and is quite compatible with cheerfulness, even ebullience, about the actual workings of government.

    "With all his distrust of the politician's or the social scientist's ability to find magic, or even competent, solutions, he has never abandoned his faith in an American government that should exemplify -- what were the words he used in Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture? --'dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability.'"

    "James Q. Wilson said, and said truly, that he brought to his task 'luminous intellect, personal conviction, deep historical knowledge, the eye of an artist and the pen of an angel, and above all an incorruptible devotion to the common good.'"

    How true. We will sorely miss Daniel Patrick Moynihan.-- Gerry Rising