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Moynihan: Giant of the Senate

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   March 26, 2003 at 10:46 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) -- The death of former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., Wednesday at the age of 76 removes one of the greatest, most productive and positive figures in modern American political history, and one of the very first rank figures in the 214 year record of the U.S. Senate.

It was a truly a career -- and a life -- the like of which legends are made. Pat Moynihan was one of the last of a generation of giants. He was born and spent his earliest years in one of the worst slums in America -- and at the height of the Great Depression and from a broken family as well. Yet while still in his early 30s, he was already an assistant secretary of labor for President John F. Kennedy, served four presidents, Democratic and Republican alike with distinction and then went on to sit in the Senate for almost a quarter of a century.

His contributions alternately outraged right and left alike yet there was a stunning consistency to his career. He was, arguably, more of a classic "Scoop Jackson" Democrat than Jackson himself, and, certainly he inherited Jackson's mantle as the leader of the robust old New Deal tradition within the Democratic Party, combining a commitment for social justice -- but not at the expense of corroding the family structure and basic work ethic of the American people, with a confident, robust defense of decent democratic values both at home and around the world.

He started off as a conventional big government liberal under JFK and was a personal favorite of the president, another intellectually brilliant Irishman from the urban Northeast who liked a good drink, racy company and a good time. But Moynihan even then stood out from the conventional New Frontier liberals. After Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Moynihan in vain pleaded for urgent additional Federal protection to be given to Lee Harvey Oswald, who had been charged with the sensational murder. His warnings were ignored and only days later, Oswald was shot dead himself by Jack Ruby in the basement of Dallas police headquarters.

Moynihan explained how and why he had been so prescient, and it was typical of the man. When he had been growing up as one of an impoverished single parent family raised by his mother in the notorious Hell's Kitchen slum district of New York City in the mid-40 streets of Manhattan's middle West Side, the local police station was seen by neighborhood kids, he explained as a place of threat and dread were people could get routinely beaten to a pulp or even killed with impunity. None of the other habitues of the Kennedy White House came from such humble -- and dangerous -- backgrounds and therefore they took the illusory security of a police station for granted. That combination of tough, experiential street smarts and intellectually brilliant analysis would inspire his entire career.

He delighted in outraging Washington pieties and conventionalities from the very beginning. He made a lifelong enemy of the feared J. Edgar Hoover. The all-powerful FBI chief famously described him in a memo as a "skunk" and an "egghead."

He was indeed arguably the most brilliant, controversial and prescient intellectual to shine in Washington over the past half century. After serving Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, he astonished liberals by agreeing to work for Republican President Richard M. Nixon as his chief adviser on domestic affairs and then outraged his old liberal colleagues even further by advising a policy of "benign neglect" toward ethnic minorities. But he was one of the very first liberals to recognize that LBJ's Great Society welfare reforms had done devastating damage to the family structure of the poor , and especially of black American families, across the nation. As early as 1965, he warned Johnson in a report that the soaring rate of out of wedlock births threatened a generation of social pathology that would engulf Black America. In 1969, he also argued in vain, albeit with Nixon's appreciative support for a radical reform of the welfare system. He was almost 30 years ahead of his time.

Nixon appointed him U.S. ambassador to India from 1973 to 1975 and then President Gerald Ford appointed him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He faced an unprecedented ferocious broad diplomatic assault on the United States and its allies, especially Israel by radicalized Third World nations and he brought a courage and vigor to the public defense of his country that had not been seen since before the start of the Vietnam War. It made him a national hero. And in 1976, he confounded experts again by winning the first of four successive victories to represent New York state in the Senate.

U.S. history is replete with prominent senators who bestrode that august institution like a colossus but were embittered and humiliated by their repeated failures to win the presidency. Indeed, only two figures have ever gone direct from the Senate to the White House, Republican Warren Harding in 1920 and Moynihan's own revered friend and benefactor Kennedy in 1960.

Moynihan had the talent and stature to have aspired to and even won the Democratic presidential nomination and he was very arguably the most attractive, popular and impressive figure in the party from the time Johnson's popularity went sour in the mid-1960s to the presidential victory of Bill Clinton more than a quarter of a century later. But he never had the taste of the presidency in his mouth and he loved the Senate. Although historically it has produced few prominent intellectuals as a proportion of its total membership, it has always appreciated and celebrated the ones it had.

Moynihan flourished in this environment. He always skillfully wedded his flamboyant Irish good cheer and charm and beloved intellectual, professorial brilliance with a shrewd, unrelenting political practicality that was also the essence of the great blue collar northeastern Irish ethnic tradition. And in 1993, he became the first New York senator in 155 years to chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He arguably did more to ease the financial burdens on New York City and state using his seniority and Capitol Hill skills than any other New York congressional representative of the past half century -- an accomplishment of which he remained proud.

But Moynihan never lost the broad visionary sense that complemented his pork barrel common sense. As early as 1980, he predicted the coming implosion and collapse of the Soviet Union -- easily the first such serious prediction in American politics. "The defining event of the decade might well be the break-up of the Soviet empire," he told his astonished colleagues. That prophecy came to pass almost exactly on the year at the end of 1991. In 1986, he also achieved the first major overhaul of Johnson disastrous welfare system in pushing through the Family Support Act.

Up to his retirement in 2000 he remained the best act in the Senate. Immensely tall at 6 ft 5 inches, he was always a distinctive figure with his striking white mane of tousled hair, his heavy horn-rimmed spectacles and his trademark, engagingly archaic bow-tie. He drank like a fish and loved good company. In an age of hypocrites, intolerance and prudes, he stood out like a fish out of water from the dominant trend on Capitol Hill and defied the conservative Politically Correct orthodoxies of the 1990s as cavalierly and successfully as he had defied the liberal ones of the 60s. He repeatedly enraged and defied Clinton, too. The same man who had urged welfare reform on Nixon as early as 1969 opposed Clinton's successful reform initiative in 1998 as too harsh on poor families. Yet ironically it was his endorsement that proved crucial for former first lady Hillary Clinton's successful run for the New York Senate seat he vacated in 2000.

It is a familiar cliché whenever a dominant figure of the U.S. Senate retires or passes away to lament that an era has ended and that his like will never be seen again, but so far new giants have always emerged to replace old ones. No doubt that will happen in the future just as it did in the past. But there can be no doubt that Moynihan's passing leaves a gap that quite simply can not be filled. He was sui generis, truly unique and admirable by any possible touchstone.

Winston Churchill's epitaph in his autobiography "My Early Life" to Lord Cromer, the veteran British imperial proconsul of Egypt, remarkably fits this wonderful, generous, brilliant, courageous, principled and visionary man: "We do not see his like nowadays, though our need is grave."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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