In Washington, D.C., the city that columnist George Will described as having “the world’s highest ratio of action to reflection,” the man who died this week (March 26) in 2003 was one of the few who made the latter a prerequisite of the former. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a politician (four-term senator from New York), a diplomat (ambassador to India and the United Nations), and an advisor to every president from Kennedy to Carter. But mostly he was a brilliant thinker whose contributions to America’s intellectual debate on some of our country’s most profound political, cultural and global challenges is virtually unmatched. As George Will also noted, Moynihan managed to write more books than most of his colleagues on Capitol Hill managed to read.
He was an anomaly. A Democratic who usually voted the party line, he was often liberalism’s harshest critic. He opposed partial-birth abortion, calling it infanticide. He objected vigorously to, and helped scuttle, the national health care plan that President Clinton, through his wife Hillary, tried to get through Congress. Moynihan was even among the first politicians to press for welfare reform, which Clinton later signed into law, and as co-chair of President Bush’s commission on Social Security reform, Moynihan supported allowing Americans some measure of private investment.
But Moynihan’s greatest contribution to his country was his writing on our thorniest social issues, even though, in most cases, that writing earned him universal vilification.
A good example was his 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Moynihan concluded that the major cause of African-American poverty was a rise in black illegitimacy and the breakdown of the family structure, for which he was branded a racist. Today, of course, most of America’s black leaders wholeheartedly support that conclusion.
Also, in 1993, Moynihan published another of his most important, and controversial, papers, “Defining Deviancy Down” for The American Scholar. His premise was that lowering our standards with respect to society’s most basic legal principles and moral values only encourages the increasingly egregious flouting of both. Moynihan’s report — condemned by myriad liberal groups — became a rallying cry for many urban politicians, most notably Rudy Giuliani in New York, who posited that neglecting to punish such minor crimes as petty larceny or vandalism inevitably leads to greater crimes such as armed robbery and burglary. Thus Moynihan gets a share of the credit for New York City’s (and other cities’) return to civility — and greatness — in the decade that followed.
In an age of sound bites, Moynihan was a believer in serious, thoughtful debate. In a profession known for self-promotion, he was a conviction politician who followed the truth wherever it led. His like will not come again soon.