Category: Archive

The public man

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The “Almanac of American Politics” called him “the nation’s best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.”
In 1996, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, said that Moynihan, one of his successors as U.S. envoy to India, was “quite possibly the most diversely interesting and influential political figure in our time.”
Just four days after the first anniversary of his death at the age of 76, the MCNY launched its 6-months-long exhibition dedicated to the man who served four presidents and was then elected to four consecutive terms as senator for New York. It’s entitled “New York’s Moynihan.”
“A skillful politician with a record of far-reaching legislative accomplishments, he was also passionately committed to preservation and design excellence in public architecture,” said the museum’s president and director, Susan Henshaw Jones
Much of the second floor of the Georgian-Colonial style structure, built for the museum in 1932, is given over to the visually pleasing tribute. Large poster-like photos dominate. In some, Moynihan poses alone or is caught deep in thought, while in others he’s in the frame with a variety of notables from John Erlichman to Indira Gandhi.
The pictures are interspaced with quotations in large print. One from 1980 reads: “The defining event of the decade might well be the breakup of the Soviet empire.”
One wall is packed with extracts, in much smaller print, from important contributions he made over 24 years on the Senate floor.
Moynihan the “senator of design,” as some called him, is an important theme in the exhibition.
His contributions in that regard can be seen in the Post Office on Eight Avenue and the Custom House at Battery Park in New York, but he’s particularly associated with the decades-long effort to develop Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
“[Architecture] is as fundamental a sign of the competence of government as will be found. Men who build bad buildings are bad governors,” Moynihan said in 1969.
Discussing public space in 2001, he said: “the notion of civitas, of a citizen, of a person with a responsibility to be there and participate in a public space, that is what it means to be a republic.”
This quintessential New Yorker was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Okla., but in his first year his family moved to New York City.
It’s well known now that Moynihan mythologized aspects of his “Hell’s Kitchen” childhood. He didn’t in fact properly experience that neighborhood until his mother bought a bar there when he was 20. But the family did suffer through very difficult times after his father, John Moynihan, a newspaperman and advertising copywriter, deserted them when Pat was 10.
Despite the hardships, Moynihan was destined for an academic career. His end-of-World-War-II service entitled him to college education under the GI Bill, and later he won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the London School of Economics.
Moynihan’s earliest experiences with politics were in two successful campaigns — Robert Wagner’s election as mayor of New York in 1953 and W. Averill Harriman’s elevation to the governor’s office the following year. He got a job with Harriman in Albany. Then in 1955, Moynihan married a fellow staffer, Elizabeth Brennan.
There are allusions to earlier times, but not many, and while there are personal items on display — a cardigan, a typewriter, a desk and letters, for instance — the exhibition concentrates on the public figure. It is, after all, “New York’s Moynihan,” not Moynihan’s New York.
His Washington career began in 1961 when, as a 34-year-old college professor, he became one of the “best and the brightest” who joined John F. Kennedy’s administration. During that first stint in government he wrote “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” in which he argued against an “official style” and in favor of public buildings that “should reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American National Government.”
His first major book, “Beyond the Melting Pot,” co-written with Nathan Glazer, appeared in 1963. Moynihan, who visited his County Kerry cousins when he was studying in London, argued that, contrary to expectations, ethnic identity persisted for generations after immigration to America.
Then came calamity. “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually,” he said in a television interview on Nov. 24, 1963, about the assassination of the president.

Controversial book
Moynihan’s next foray into publishing was particularly controversial. “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” traced the connection between the break-up of the family and poverty. Certain aspects of his thesis were misunderstood at the time, but the book has since come to be seen as an important contribution to the debate about race and social policy.
In 2003, the New York Times’ obituary said: “When other senators used August recesses to travel or raise money for reelection, he spent most of them in an 1854 schoolhouse on his farm in Pindars Corners in Delaware County, about 65 miles west of Albany. He was writing books, 9 as a senator, 18 in all.” The museum has them all on display.
The furor over his domestic-policy positions took its toll on Moynihan, and for that reason, it’s believed, he got more involved with foreign-policy issues.
In that sphere, he was generally associated with neoconservativism, known for its aggressively anti-Soviet stance. And, like many in that camp, he was linked with the ideology of neoliberalism. In his office, Moynihan kept two framed magazine covers, which the museum has enlarged: one, from a special issue of the Nation devoted to him, has the legend “The conscience of a neoconservative,” while the other from the New Republic said “Pat Moynihan: Neoliberal.”
However, the man who worked for Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford defied easily labeling.
In the 1980s, he said the U.S. broke international law in Central America, and in more recent years he was concerned with the issue of government secrecy. Some believed that Moynihan was at heart always a liberal Democrat. He himself said in 2000 that he was an “Al Smith Democrat.”
In a quiet alcove, the visitor can view a fascinating 30-minute compilation of television clips of Moynihan in action. Among them is his bitter attack on the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism, the passing of which, he said, was an “infamous act.”
In another he clashes with Sen. Philip Gramm. “Don’t misrepresent my record, fella,” he said pugnaciously, reminding the Texan in 1986 he was just a year in the Senate.
Though it spans the decades, the museum’s compilation neatly creates a mood. It evokes an era, the mid- to late-1970s, when a vigorous, middle-aged Moynihan became a widely known public figure as an ambassador and then a senator.
One expects it somehow to be followed by an episode of “Happy Days” or “Charlie’s Angels,” or perhaps “Taxi.”
Moynihan backed his successor, Hillary Clinton, in her campaign of 2000. When he died on March 26, 2003, she announced the news to the Senate. Politicians from both sides of the aisle lauded him.
There were more tributes at a memorial last fall. Former basketball star and senator Bill Bradley, by way of praising him, pointed to a chink in Moynihan’s encyclopedic armor. “The only subject he knew nothing about was sports,” he said. “Architecture, foreign policy, social policy, tax policy, trade policy, world history, ideas, Disraeli, Gladstone, yes. Sports, no.”
The museum began its exhibition with a star-studded symposium, which will be shown on C-Span in the coming weeks. Tim Russert, the “Meet the Press” host, who was the senator’s chief of staff from 1979-82, chaired the event. The speakers included Glazer, columnist George F. Will, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Washington Post writer E.J. Dionne Jr., diplomat Peter Galbraith, whom Moynihan admired greatly for his work in the Balkans, and Judge Robert A. Katzman. “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: the Intellectual in Public Life,” edited by Katzman has been updated and republished to accompany the exhibition.
Among the programs about the senator in the next few months will be a discussion led by Nobel prize winner and former SDLP leader John Hume on the Four Horsemen, Moynihan’s alliance with Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy and Hugh Carey on behalf of peace in Northern Ireland. It takes place Tuesday, June 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the museum, 1220 Fifth Ave. (at 103rd Street), in Manhattan. For more information and reservations, call (212) 534-1672, ext. 3393.
Tickets, which allow also access to the museum’s other exhibitions, are $8 for museum members, seniors and students; $10 for non-members.

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