Moynihan drew pleasure from politics

Senator from New York left his imprint on policy, enjoyed playing the game

March 27, 2003|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - To those who came to know him along the way, what made Pat Moynihan such a special figure in American public life was less the distinction of his career than the enormous pleasure he drew from it.

Whether arguing foreign policy or welfare reform or highway design, he enjoyed himself immensely. He saw politics as a way to achieve great purposes, not just the self-aggrandizement so obviously prized by so many men and women who achieve high office.

In his four terms in the Senate and the staggering list of appointive posts he held under four presidents, Pat loved the game. He seemed to enjoy nothing more than recounting over a friendly glass at sundown the maneuvering that had led to some success or, on occasion, to a failure.

"You know how Charlie can be," he might say of a difficult political ally, "but he went along and in the end he thought it was his own idea so he's going to be happy with it."

His speech was always spiced with words and phrases that seemed arcane and perhaps contrived. But this was no pose. In speech and good humor, the Pat Moynihan of later years was identical to the young academic who joined the Albany staff of W. Averell Harriman when that patrician Democrat was elected governor of New York in 1954.

Exceeded his duties

As assistant secretary to the governor, Moynihan had a limited portfolio that he frequently exceeded, sometimes to Harriman's concern.

Promoting his candidate as a possible presidential nominee in 1956, Moynihan had to be restrained when he began making promises on civil rights that other Harriman advisers considered too liberal.

Moynihan used his time in state government to plunge into issues that were new to him and to the whole arena of public debate.

He was writing articles about highway policy and the relationship between public funding and safety well before Ralph Nader. He was developing ideas for confronting the problems of American cities and the underclass when the only accepted answer seemed to be slum clearance.

Domestic policy expert

He became the man who, at different times in his career, was the "go-to" expert on domestic issues as diverse as health care, the plight of minority families, Social Security and tax policy.

He worked at the Department of Labor sub-Cabinet level in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, then as a domestic policy adviser to President Richard M. Nixon.

When a few fellow Democrats sniffed at him working for Nixon, Pat seemed to take the attitude that his work product would justify the unusual assignment. In fact, it did - leading Nixon to development of an incomes policy that was stifled by Watergate but was nonetheless ahead of the game.

Nor was his influence limited to domestic policy. He left the White House to serve Nixon and another Republican president, Gerald R. Ford, as ambassador to India and then to the United Nations.

It was a grounding that clearly led to elective politics, a road that looked tricky for the outspoken and colorful Moynihan. But he defeated a Republican incumbent, James Buckley, in 1976 and was re-elected with 65 percent of the vote in 1982, 67 percent in 1988 and 55 percent against the Republican surge of 1994.

Criticized Clinton

As a ranking leader of the Senate Finance Committee, Moynihan was a leading voice in his party on taxes, Social Security and welfare reform issues. But he didn't always win and didn't sit by silently on issues he took seriously - most notably when he criticized President Clinton cuttingly for abandoning 60 years of Democratic policy to make a deal with Republicans on welfare reform.

The missing item in Pat Moynihan's resume was, of course, that he never was considered a realistic possibility for the national ticket, unlike almost anyone who rises to the top of New York politics.

Part of the reason might have been his devout liberalism, but another part was a reputation he developed as a two-fisted drinker.

Asked once whether the whiskey were worth what he might be sacrificing, Moynihan offered a controlled smile and replied, "Ah, ah, I don't know."

He paused, then said, "I'll have to have a drink on that."

Whether or not he might have done more as president, Pat Moynihan left a huge imprint on the public policy of his time. And along the way he was a man who enjoyed himself and the lesser politicians around him.

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