Mentor Moynihan was one of a kind

March 28, 2003|By Chester E. Finn Jr.

THE ALMANAC of American Politics once described former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died Wednesday at 76, as America's best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson. We will not see his like anytime soon.

Pat Moynihan was a unique amalgam of politico and scholar, of policy-maker and analyst, of practitioner and theorist. The academic Moynihan authored 18 books on sociology, political science and public policy, several of them hugely influential. And there were articles, speeches, scholarly addresses, reports, memoranda and op-ed articles beyond counting. He served as professor at several universities, primarily Harvard and most recently Syracuse.

Practitioner Moynihan served four terms as senator from New York, as ambassador to the United Nations, ambassador to India, assistant secretary of labor (in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations), White House domestic policy adviser (in the Nixon administration), and in myriad other roles at local, state and national levels.

His interests ranged wider than those of anyone I have known: from the structure of the American family and the (non)assimilation of immigrants to the architecture of federal buildings and the renewal of Pennsylvania Avenue as "America's Main Street."

From welfare reform to national security. From the imploding of the Soviet state to the parlous state of democracy in a dangerous world. From the problems of the health care system to the government's habit of "classifying" more documents than is healthy in a free society.

A man of great personal courage and intellectual integrity, he would speak truth to power even when the powerful didn't want to hear it. Indeed, there was a counter-cyclical quality to him, a tendency to probe the weak points and reveal the blind spots of the regnant regime and the day's conventional wisdom.

A clear thinker and vivid writer, he sometimes said controversial things so plainly as to leave a wake of upset. The two most famous incidents both involved race: his report to LBJ on the deteriorating condition of the "Negro family" and his suggestion to Richard Nixon that the issue of race might benefit from a period of "benign neglect." Much rancor followed both episodes, but history has certainly proved him right about the former and is fast proving him correct about the latter.

He wasn't perfect. He could be vain, thin-skinned and sycophantic. He spoke in a stilted way. His work habits were a peculiar melding of self-discipline and self-indulgence. He was both the most stimulating and frustrating of bosses, the kind who kept changing the assignment and rewriting whatever you turned in.

That made for a lot of staff turnover, but it also meant he attracted talent. I first encountered that attraction when he chaired a faculty seminar at Harvard in the mid-1960s to reanalyze the celebrated Coleman report on "equality of opportunity" in U.S. education, perhaps the most influential piece of education research of the past half-century.

Seminar participants occupied, or went on to occupy, positions of much influence all over the education system. Around that time, I persuaded him to serve as my doctoral adviser. (I think he judged it easier to assent than to keep putting me off.) Then I followed him to the Nixon White House, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and the Senate for most of his first term. I've never had abler colleagues. Mr. Moynihan was like a magnet. He drew amazing people to him - and to each other. And, like a magnet, he would sometimes then repel them.

He was my main mentor during my 20s and 30s, my premier guide into the worlds of public policy and education, and a source of endless inspiration. A party held in his honor one blistering June evening in North India was where I met the woman who became my wife - and the ever gracious and professorial Mr. Moynihan, when he saw that we were serious, swiftly began to tutor her in the history, politics and culture of these strange Americans.

He and I didn't always agree - he moved leftward in the 1980s while I joined the Reagan administration - and, to my regret, we didn't see each other much in recent years. But his influence endures not only in everything I do but in the lives of hundreds of others who also benefited from knowing this extraordinary man.

Chester E. Finn Jr. was Daniel Patrick Moynihan's legislative director from 1977 to 1981 and served with him in India from 1973 to 1974. He was assistant secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 in the Reagan administration and now is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. Distributed by Cox Newspapers.

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