Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- In the summer of 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan asked me to lunch at the Occidental Restaurant in downtown Washington. He was resigning as an assistant secretary of Labor in the Johnson administration to run, unsuccessfully, for City Council president of New York. He had something to give me: his 79-page Labor Department report, based on Census Bureau statistics that exposed the breakdown of the African-American family.

Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz refused Moynihan's request to release the report that showed broken homes, female-oriented households, and especially rampant illegitimacy among blacks negated increased federal spending. The report had been leaked earlier, but the column about it by my late partner, Rowland Evans, and me first connected it with the 38-year-old liberal intellectual and aspiring Democratic politician. The column of Aug. 18, 1965, titled "The Moynihan Report," triggered unremitting conflict between him and his party's dominant left wing.

It also made clear to me that Moynihan was not just another bright young New Frontiersman brought to Washington by John F. Kennedy. He was a visionary risk-taker, who became New York's most successful candidate of his era while telling more truth than most politicians dare think about. In 47 years of covering Washington, I found only one Pat Moynihan.

After Moynihan lost badly in the 1965 New York City election, he followed the Moynihan Report with more social criticism that enraged the Left. That aroused the attention of Richard M. Nixon, who talked Moynihan into leaving his chair at Harvard to become a senior White House staffer in 1969. He fascinated Nixon, talking the new Republican president into institutionalizing liberal initiatives of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

Moynihan was not about to become a Republican. Over drinks in his office late one afternoon, he said Nixon and his men "are really very nice people who represent a dreadful constituency." However, he advised me, his days as a Democratic politician were finished. That seemed confirmed when Moynihan later served Republican presidents with diplomatic assignments at the United Nations and in India.

How the hated Nixon's counselor was elected to the Senate from New York in 1976 as a Democrat can be explained by good luck and deception. Three left-wing opponents enabled Moynihan to win the Democratic primary with a minority of the vote. During that primary campaign, I saw a fierce young Democrat demand from Moynihan which presidential candidate he had voted for in 1972: Nixon or George McGovern. "Why, McGovern, of course," Moynihan replied, without flinching.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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