The Gentleman From New York : Daniel Patrick Moynihan Daniel Patrick Moynihan describes his extraordinary career as public servant, academician, and public intellectual as a series of "chance encounters and random walks." He has been called "the best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and the best politician among thinkers since Jefferson."For over 40 years, in various roles both inside and outside of government, including 24 years as a U.S. senator from New York, Myonihan has addressed a wide range of domestic and foreign policy concerns. Before he was elected to the Senate, he was the only person in American history to serve in the cabinet or subcabinet of four successive presidents.
Geoffrey Hodgson, a keen observer of the American political scene and author of several fine books on our political thought and personalities, including a superb biography of statesman Henry Stimson, has known Moynihan for four decades. In his enlightening and insightful new book, The Gentleman From New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Hodgson masterfully focuses on the interplay between "ideas and action" in his subject's career. Those ideas and actions such as helping to prepare legislation for the War on Poverty in the 1960s and being a key player in Congressional reform of welfare policy in 1987 have earned him the respect and admiration even of those who disagreed with him. At other times, he has been misunderstood or ahead of conventional thinking on an issue. In the latter category is the frequently misrepresented Moynihan Report, about which Hodgson writes: "What was truly original, and remarkably courageous, is that Moynihan was willing to come out for affirmative action." But, "no episode in Moynihan's life, perhaps . . . has been so misunderstood as his crossover to the Nixon White House." As Hodgson explains, however, Moynihan believed certain things needed to be done, and "it seemed logical to see what other alliances might be available." The biographer also explores Moynihan's reaction to the Watergate scandal and his thoughts about Richard Nixon.
Hodgon's carefully researched book probes Moynihan's writings and interviews with his friends and colleagues to help identify his core principles. John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, points out that "You will never understand Pat in terms of commitment to Left or Right. He has a mind wholly free of ideological commitments. His long-term commitment is to the cities, to the poor, and especially to poor children." James Q. Wilson notes that "Pat has always been a Democrat. He always believes that the job of politics is to help those who can't help themselves. But he has a scholar's reluctance to accept the proposition that the government knows very much about how to help people who can't help themselves."Hodgson thinks a 1967 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard comes as close as Moynihan ever has to defining his political philosophy. The speech, Hodgson writes, reveals "a complex, subtle attempt at reconciling freedom and order, the public and the individual, pessimism and pride, in the effort to build an inhabitable society on foundations of truth."It has been a long journey since Moynihan's father abandoned his mother and three young children. Hodgson shows how the three years his subject spent in England at the London School of Economics were crucial to his development. He details Moynihan's tenure as ambassador to India and gives the background of Moynihan's eloquent speech at the United Nations where he spoke against a resolution equating Zionism with racism.
We learn of the key role played in Moynihan's life and career by his wife, Liz, who, among many other duties, has served as her husband's campaign manager in his last three Senate races.
This finely wrought biography vividly illuminates the rich life and thought of a unique and influential American.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.