Who will be able to replace Daniel Patrick Moynihan?

September 17, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- When this Congress ends, so will one of the broadest and deepest public careers in American history.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- participant in John Kennedy's New Frontier, member of Lyndon Johnson's White House staff, Richard Nixon's domestic policy adviser, Gerald Ford's ambassador to India and the United Nations, four-term senator -- will walk from the Senate and political life, leaving both better for his having been in them, and leaving all who observe them bereft of the rare example of a public intellectual's life lived well -- adventurously, bravely and leavened by wit.

The intellectual polarities of his life have been belief in government's ameliorative powers -- and in William Butler Yeats' deflation of expectations for politics:

Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:

Ireland shall get her freedom and you will still break stone.

Having served four presidents, Mr. Moynihan wrote that he did not remember ever having heard at a Cabinet meeting "a serious discussion of political ideas -- one concerned with how men, rather than markets, behave." Regarding behavior, Mr. Moynihan has stressed the importance of ethnicity -- the Balkans; the Bronx, come to that. Mr. Moynihan knew how wrong Marx was in asserting the lost saliency of pre-industrial factors, such as ethnicity and religion, in the modern age.

His gift for disruptions was apparent early, in 1965, when, during an audience with Pope Paul VI, at a time when the Church was reconsidering its doctrine of the collective guilt of Jews for Christ's crucifixion, Mr. Moynihan, a Catholic, shattered protocol by addressing the pope: "Holy Father, we hope you will not forget our friends the Jews." Later, an unsettled member of the audience, the bishop of Chicago, said, "We need a drink." Mr. Moynihan said, "If they're going to behave like a medieval court, they must expect us to take an opportunity to petition him."

During his U.N. service he decided that U.S. foreign policy elites were "decent people, utterly unprepared for their work" because "they had only one idea and that was wrong." It was that the bad behavior of other nations was usually a reaction to America's worse behavior. He has been a liberal traditionalist, keeper of Woodrow Wilson's crusade for lawful rather than normless dealings among nations.

"Everyone," says Mr. Moynihan the social scientist, "is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts." When in 1993 the Clinton administration's Goals 2000 asserted that by 2000 America's high school graduation rate would be 90 percent and American students would lead the world in mathematics and science achievements, Mr. Moynihan acidly compared these goals to the old Soviet grain production quotas. Of the projected 2000 outcome, Mr. Moynihan said: "That will not happen." It didn't.

Mr. Moynihan has written much while occupying the dark and bloody ground where social science and policymaking intersect. Knowing that the two institutions that most shape individuals are the family and the state, he knows that when the former weakens, the latter strengthens. And family structure is "the principal conduit of class structure." Hence Mr. Moynihan's interest in government measures to strengthen families.

He understands that incantations praising minimalist government are America's "civic religion, avowed but not constraining." Government grows because of the ineluctable bargaining process among interest groups that favor government outlays that benefit them. And government grows because knowledge does, and knowledge often grows because of government.

Knowledge, says Mr. Moynihan, is a form of capital, much of it formed by government investment in education. And knowledge begets government. He says: Behold California's Imperial Valley, unchanged since "the receding of the Ice Age." Only God can make an artichoke, but government -- specifically, the Bureau of Reclamation -- made the Valley a cornucopia. Time was, hospitals' biggest expense was clean linen. Then came technologies -- diagnostic, therapeutic, pharmacological -- that improved health, increased costs and expanded government.

"Not long ago," Mr. Moynihan has written, "it could be agreed that politics was the business of who gets what, when, where, how. It is now more than that. It has become a process that also deliberately seeks to effect such outcomes as who thinks what, who acts when, who lives where, who feels how." Mr. Moynihan appreciates the pertinence of political philosopher Michael Oakshott's cautionary words: "To try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise."

The 14-year-old Moynihan was shining shoes on Central Park West when he heard about Pearl Harbor. In the subsequent six decades he has been more conversant with, and more involved in, more of the nation's transforming controversies than anyone else. Who will do what he has done for the intellectual nutritiousness of public life? The nation is not apt to see his like again, never having seen it before him.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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