Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s exceptional career confounds any swift or simple summary. His influence crossed the spectrum from left to right and back again, because his nature was to do something that too few politicians are capable of doing: He thought for himself and expressed his own views, in speech and in print, with elegance and conviction. Although he was a fierce defender of Israel and an implacable enemy of tyrants like Saddam Hussein, I suspect he may have doubted the wisdom of the current war, both as an affront to international law and institutions and a dubiously utopian project.
His intellectual gifts didn’t always protect Moynihan from error, to say the least. Having done so much to preserve Social Security, a program he revered as the symbol of activist government, he lent his prestige in recent years to privatization efforts that he ought to have rejected. Moynihan could draw the wrong conclusions from the right instincts, as I learned when I covered him during his first two Senate terms.
Back then his pet project was a federal highway-cum-real-estate-development known as Westway, which would have filled hundreds of acres of the Hudson River with landfill. He persisted in advocating this scheme, despite the potentially grave cost in dollars and environmental damage, because of his enduring, now unfashionable belief in the value of great public works. Yet that same faith and determination may restore to New York what we lost when the vandals tore down Penn Station, when someday his plan to transform the old Farley post office building into a magnificent railway terminal is realized. On that day, the monument to his vision should be dedicated in his name.
Despite his service to Republican presidents, his revulsion at the New Left and his long sojourn among the neoconservatives, Moynihan remained in essence a liberal Democrat. At a time when many of his closest friends and associates turned toward the far right, enjoying the emoluments of corporate conservatism, he refused to join them. Instead, he became one of the most trenchant critics of Reaganite economics and the excesses of the secretive, undemocratic national security apparatus. For all that, he deserves to be recalled with admiration and gratitude.
He was also a man of immense personal charm and character. My favorite memory of him was when he showed up at a birthday party for Murray Kempton in Newsday’s Manhattan offices, where he presented the late columnist with an American flag that had flown over the Capitol. It was a wonderful gesture in honor of a lifelong dissenter, whose patriotism the senator understood to be as deep and true as his own regardless of their disagreements. Like other New Yorkers, I send condolences to his bereaved family and friends.
[9:36 a.m. PST, March 27, 2003]
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