Only one Moynihan

Posted: Mar 31, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Moynihan's early Senate staff was comprised of glittering future Republicans or crypto-Republicans: Elliott Abrams, Charles Horner, Checker Finn, and the late Eric Breindel. Some of them felt betrayed by the senator's subsequent leftward drift, but Moynihan was a practical politician who understood the adjustments necessary to survive in New York Democratic politics. He still favored school vouchers, for example, but just did not talk about it anymore.

Moynihan became unbeatable as a four-term senator, permitting him to exercise a freedom of expression that offended his party's ideologues. When New York's Democratic Mayor David Dinkins faced 1993 defeat for re-election, Moynihan condemned the city's leadership for tolerating bad behavior. While guiding President Bill Clinton's tax package through the Senate Finance Committee, he called it the biggest increase in history. He denied Clinton's claims of a health care crisis, and called the illegal foreign political contributions to Clinton "an attack on our system" from Asia.

Perhaps his greatest Democratic heresy was longtime advocacy of private contributions as the necessary medicine for Social Security. His last public service was co-chairing President Bush's commission on Social Security reform, which made just such a recommendation.

A few years ago when I was recuperating at home from a broken hip, the senator dropped by and brought a copy of "Secrecy," one of 19 books he wrote. He pointed out the book's disclosure that Gen. Omar Bradley had dogmatically kept secret from President Truman the result of communications intercepts revealing Soviet espionage in the U.S. "How that would have kept the Democrats from the embarrassment of defending Alger Hiss and saved us from McCarthyism," said Moynihan. I can't imagine another U.S. senator exploring this, but there was only one Moynihan.