George Will

WASHINGTON--Many of America's largest public careers have been those of presidents. Many, but by no means all. Chief Justice John Marshall was more consequential than all but two presidents--Washington and Lincoln. Among 20th- century public servants, Gen. George Marshall--whose many achievements included discerning the talents of a Col. Eisenhower--may have been second in importance only to Franklin Roosevelt. And no 20th-century public career was as many-faceted, and involved so much prescience about as many matters, as that of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died Wednesday at 76.

He was born in Tulsa but spent his formative years on Manhattan's Lower East Side, from which he rose to Harvard's faculty and the administrations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford, serving as, among other things, ambassador to India and the U.S. representative at the United Nations. Then four Senate terms. Along the way he wrote more books than some of his colleagues read, and became something that, like Atlantis, is rumored to have once existed but has not recently been seen--the Democratic Party's mind.

His was the most penetrating political intellect to come from New York since Alexander Hamilton, who, like Moynihan, saw over the horizon of his time, anticipating the evolving possibilities and problems of a consolidated, urbanized, industrial nation. A liberal who did not flinch from the label, he reminded conservatives that the Constitution's framers ``had more thoughts about power than merely its limitation.''

But he was a liberal dismayed by what he called ``the leakage of reality from American life.'' When in 1994 the Senate debated an education bill, Moynihan compared the legislation's two quantifiable goals--a high school graduation rate of ``at least 90 percent'' by 2000, and American students ``first in the world in mathematics and science''--to Soviet grain production quotas.

The Senate's Sisyphus, Moynihan was forever pushing uphill a boulder of inconvenient data. A social scientist trained to distinguish correlation from causation, and a wit, Moynihan puckishly said that a crucial determinant of the quality of American schools is proximity to the Canadian border. The barb in his jest was this: High cognitive outputs correlate not with high per-pupil expenditures but with a high percentage of two-parent families. For that, there was the rough geographical correlation that caused Moynihan to suggest that states trying to improve their students' test scores should move closer to Canada.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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