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- May 12, 1975
- Vol. 3
- No. 18
A Onetime Shoeshine Boy Who Advised Three Presidents, Pat Moynihan Heads for the U.n.
The 6'6" professor, who was born in Tulsa, Okla. but grew up in Harlem and tended bar at his mother's saloon in Hell's Kitchen, had come back to his old hometown from Cambridge, Mass. At Harvard, he is professor of government between jobs of sub-Cabinet or higher rank in Washington. Anne Fremantle, a writer and old friend, was interviewing him about his just-published Ethnicity on her local radio program. The book, which he co-edited, is a series of essays on worldwide ethnic politics. Throughout the half hour, she felt that Moynihan addressed her as if she were a public meeting.
From her studio, he descended to a subway station, rosy-faced under a tweedy little hat, looking as Irish as his handle. As the train pulled in, Moynihan seemed to ponder whether to buy a token or vault over the turnstile. Fears that the ambassador-designate might be charged with a misdemeanor before he could be confirmed by the Senate stirred a companion with two tokens, whom Moynihan had just met, to underwrite the cost of the trip. In gratitude, Moynihan invited his benefactor to join him in a pub of such refinement that it had a man playing constant cocktail piano. Still, its windows were covered with lace curtains, and behind the looming figure of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 48, they seemed fitting.
When he was 14 Pat Moynihan learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed from a man whose shoes he was shining outside the Museum of Natural History. He always went to the museum on Sundays because it offered more business than Times Square, where he worked the rest of the week. Over the next 22 years he was a cum laude graduate of Tufts, a Fulbright fellow in London, a mayoral campaigner for New York's Democratic Robert F. Wagner, a secretary to the state's Democratic Governor W. Averell Harriman, and a special assistant to the Democratic Secretary of Labor Arthur J. Goldberg. In 1963 Moynihan was the Assistant Secretary of Labor who turned up at the White House just before word came from Dallas that John Kennedy was dead. "You can't be Irish without knowing that eventually the world is going to break your heart," was the comfort Moynihan offered a TV interviewer during the nation's wake. Kennedy was his President, he said proprietarily at the time, but he stayed on in Washington for bigger jobs, surviving a few knifings by colleagues and some self-inflicted wounds in the two administrations that followed. Early in the Lyndon Johnson years he wrote the troubling "Moynihan Report," which claimed that the instability of Negro family life—tracing it back to slavery—disadvantaged many blacks.
The Rev. Martin Luther King and CORE Chairman Floyd McKissick went after Moynihan for that piece of work, and shortly thereafter he became a political burden the Texas President chose not to bear. Moynihan ran and lost in the primary for the presidency of New York's City Council and then worked with mayoral candidate Abraham Beame, who was trounced by the Republican John Lindsay. The two-time loser was a fellow at Connecticut's Wesleyan University for a year before he was made director of the Joint Center for Urban Studies at MIT and Harvard in 1966 and a senior member of the Institute of Politics at the nearby John F. Kennedy School of Government.
He was well dug in there, but willing to be unearthed, when the new President, Richard Nixon, who had never met Moynihan, offered him the job of White House Assistant for Urban Affairs. For his third Commander-in-Chief, Moynihan was not only house Irishman and Democrat, he was also house hostage from the exiled court of Camelot, whose heir apparent, Sen. Edward Kennedy, threatened moves. (Moynihan was in the habit of leaving matchbooks around the Executive Mansion printed with the words "Honey Fitz," which JFK had named the presidential yacht.) The erudite professor plied Nixon with straight-faced speculations that he could be the American Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister recalled more for his social legislation than his novels. As a result, Moynihan came within a Machiavellian inch or two of persuading the Republican President and his Secretary of Labor George Shultz to push through a welfare reform and guaranteed income program far beyond Johnson or Kennedy's most generous dreams. But after unemployment began to rise and Nixon's ardor cooled, hope for its passage failed. Moynihan was quick to point out that the poor had been ill-served by Kennedy's heirs and liberals who automatically opposed anything Nixon was for.
While Moynihan's apparent apologia for Nixon soured a lot of Democrats across the country, back in the White House his own humiliation was being plotted by John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. Either because those two aides, known as "the Berlin Wall," envied the Gael's influence on Nixon or because Nixon himself wanted Moynihan's influence ended, Moynihan's memos urging a course of "benign neglect" of the country's racial problems were leaked to the press. Moynihan was put on the rack for his ideas and retreated to Harvard again. There he languished out of politics until Nixon was re-elected and recalled him, masochistically it can be argued, to be the U.S. ambassador to India—the world's largest democracy. Moynihan was installed there after the memo leakers passed out Henry Kissinger's cables directing the U.S. State Department's "even-handed" policy to tilt toward Pakistan rather than India, which was supporting the secessionist Pakistani state of Bangladesh. Moynihan became certain that his assignment to the Asian subcontinent would be his last in government service.
"I'm not a failure," he told a correspondent a year back, "but I would bring liabilities of the past—just or unjust—with which a wise President would be advised not to encumber himself." With that view of his non-future as a federal appointee, Moynihan carried on in New Delhi as a very free-spirited sort. The top levels of Indian officialdom had little affection for the representative of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, and the ambassador did not much lust after their friendship. He swam in the embassy pool almost every day, tried to import as many Fred Astaire movies as possible and worried a lot about the New Delhi drinking water. (Guests of Moynihan's have recalled being served extremely respectable Cognac while the ex-New York bartender filled his own snifter from a more nobly labeled bottle.)
What the ambassador seemed to enjoy most were his long visits with touring U.S. intellectuals whose talks he booked for what was known around the embassy as Moynihan's Star Series. The unstoppable writer in him kept firing off memos to officials and letters to his friends, and for all their blarney and blather, they proved that the Indian heat had not dried up the vitriol in his prose style.
He was particularly inflamed by a U.N. report which correlated the internal health of member countries with their absence of social protest, a survey which made the restrictive USSR a model of serenity and the democratic U.S. an anarchic ruin. "For two long years the document had been reviewed at leisurely conferences in those regions of Europe noted for their scenery and their cuisine," Moynihan cabled Kissinger from India. "One plump-minded American official after another had silently or enthusiastically assented to a prolonged slander on American democracy, a sustained advocacy of totalitarian dictatorship. You know why? Because we sent stupid men and worse women to those conferences. And why did we do this? Because the hard-nosed cold warriors on the sixth floor think such things don't matter..."
It was not the political ethics of American delegates but the absence of vital life signs at the United Nations that Moynihan decried in a letter to William Buckley, which the conservative columnist quoted: "That corpse had already begun to decompose," Moynihan wrote. "If I am sorry for such language, I am even more sorry for the events which make it appropriate. The spirit of liberty has seeped out of that institution. A Death of a Thousand Cuts had occurred."
The once and future ambassador was reminded of that harsh assessment as he sipped Scotch sours with the lace curtains behind him and the U.N. mission he is headed for less than a mile away. Why was he leaving the halls of academe again? Surely not for the creature comforts of the official Waldorf Towers apartment to come home to? Unmistakably, the days ahead would be hard. The Third World and unaligned nations will push to expel Israel for its occupyings and to add Palestine and Vietcong liberationists to the membership rolls, and will otherwise devote themselves to harassing the U.S. at every turn.
The prospect of that line of work did not light up the face of the future U.S. delegate, but nonetheless he had a case to make for his decision. "I would like to think I didn't speak harshly about the U.N.," he said. "I would like to think I spoke to what I felt should be our engagement, because if we don't find a role for ourselves, the effort just to get out and have none is going to be the easiest thing to do. If you care about the U.N., you care enough to be critical of it. Obviously from our long experience of being in the majority there, it is easy to assume that support for the U.N. is indicated by a non-critical attitude. But that's not the case any longer. We are going to succeed in our relationship to the degree that we are willing to be tough-minded about majority views that we don't share."
He made a sort of courteous bow then, to mark the end of a brief lecture he found satisfying, and took a long sip. "Now that's not too hard an idea, is it?" He sipped again and looked thoughtful before he answered himself, somewhat darkly. "I think maybe it is too hard an idea. I don't think that's the way it's going to play."
He excused himself to make a phone call to the rambling stucco house in Cambridge where he lives with his wife, Elizabeth—a painter and sculptor he met when both were working for Harriman—and their three teen-aged children. He came back to the table laughing merrily. He had also talked with a friend who was called by FBI agents checking on Moynihan's loyalty to the republic. "There's a lot of snobbishness at Harvard," he began, then conjured up his friend's answer to the inquiring agent. "Don't ask me about his loyalty. How the hell am I supposed to know? Ask President Ford. He's appointing him."
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