Richard Nixon's favorite liberal: Secrets of the strangest political marriage

Nixon needed to reach across the aisle. Moynihan needed to reclaim a voice. Their partnership made history

Published January 4, 2015 4:00PM (EST)


Excerpted from "The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House"

On December 10, 1968, at Nixon’s transition headquarters at the Pierre Hotel on New York’s Fifth Avenue, the president-elect announces that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 41, will join his White House staff as assistant to the president for urban affairs. Professor Moynihan will take a two-year leave from his position as director of the Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Nixon says that he will create by executive order a new council that will serve as a “domestic counterpart of the National Security Council.”

In the next day’s Washington Post, Bernard Nossiter describes Moynihan as “six foot, five inches of corrosive wit, infuriating candor, and towering intelligence.” In the New York Times, R. W. Apple Jr. writes that Moynihan “will probably be the most visible Democrat in the new [Republican] Administration.” Don Irwin, in the Los Angeles Times, notes that “Nixon and his new aide seemed to be leaning over backward during their informal press conference to avoid issues on which they have made conflicting statements in the past.”

How did Moynihan come to be Nixon’s Democrat?

The year 1969 is not a good one for a Republican to become president. Nixon is fully aware of the problems that can result from winning the presidency with a narrow plurality of the popular vote, as he will later acknowledge in his memoirs. (Nixon won 43.4 percent of the vote, barely edging out Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s 42.7 percent. Independent candidate George Wallace polled 13.5 percent of the vote.) Nixon may or may not also be aware that the last new president to take office with both houses of Congress controlled by the opposition was Zachary Taylor—in 1848.

Appointing a prominent Democrat to his cabinet might help. It is a path full of precedent. On the eve of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, chose Republicans Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox to be, respectively, his secretary of war and secretary of the navy. Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower picked union leader Martin Durkin as his first secretary of labor. Democratic president John F. Kennedy reached out to satisfy Wall Street by appointing Douglas Dillon as his treasury secretary.

Nixon’s first choice among Democrats to join his administration had been Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the strongly anti-communist senator from the state of Washington, for the defense post. Jackson wants the job, but declines under pressure from other Democratic senators. He reportedly tells Nixon’s aides that liberal Democrats in the Senate would make his life miserable. Hubert Humphrey, the man Nixon has just defeated, is offered the United Nations ambassador post—but this is less a serious offer than a symbolic gesture of conciliation. Nixon next approaches Sargent Shriver, John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law, for the UN post. According to Nixon, Shriver replies that he would accept if the president-elect pledges not to cut federal poverty programs. Shriver is told that his demand is “intolerable.”

Unmaking a cabinet officer is much easier than making one, as Eisenhower illustrated when he eased union leader Durkin out of his conservative government with thanks for his “unique value.” But a White House staff job—close to the president, with responsibility for proposing and formulating policy—is a politically risky place to put a Democrat like Moynihan, who had been an author of the anti-poverty programs that Nixon had attacked during his campaign. Moreover, there is no personal history between them. Nixon doesn’t know Moynihan; he even asks a young campaign worker, Chris DeMuth, who had gone to Harvard, whether Pat is called “Daniel or Dan.”

Moynihan’s name is raised immediately after the election, recalled speechwriter Bill Safire, to which Nixon asks, “But could we count on him to be loyal? I don’t mean Republican. I mean— you know—one of us.”

Moynihan will later say, “I got my job in the Nixon administration as the result of a speech.” The speech, in September 1967, was titled “The Politics of Stability.” Nixon had moved to New York after his failed campaign for governor of California, and Leonard Garment, his new law partner, called Moynihan’s remarks to his attention. Moynihan “proposed that American politics were approaching instability, and that liberals who understood this should seek out and make alliances with their conservative equivalents in order to preserve democratic institutions from the looming forces of the authoritarian left and right.” Moynihan was for a policy of sharing federal money with state and local governments. Washington is “good at collecting revenues and rather bad at disbursing services.”

As for urban riots that had rocked the country in the mid-1960s, the cities erupted “in the aftermath of one of the most extraordinary periods of liberal electoral victories that we have ever experienced. Who are [liberals], then, to be pointing fingers?” Moynihan concluded, “The politics of stability are not at first exciting. It is only when we come to see how very probably our national life is at stake that the game acquires a sudden interest.” Thus, Moynihan’s ideas about the failures of 1960s liberalism came to be echoed in Nixon’s December 1967 address to the National Association of Manufacturers in New York City. Garment remembers, “Big speech, black tie, Waldorf. He gets a standing ovation, which is not something that Nixon is getting at that time.”

If Nixon wants a Democrat, Pat wants a president.

* * *

If Nixon choosing Pat is a politically difficult decision, Pat joining Nixon is a psychologically vexing one. For a coming-of-age East Coast liberal, the defining image of Nixon—immortalized in a 1954 Herblock cartoon—is a swarthy, bare knuckle campaigner coming up from the sewer.

Pat is the young man seeking a career in public service: first work for a candidate—W. Averell Harriman for governor of New York—and when Harriman wins in 1954, Pat goes to Albany as assistant to the secretary to the governor. He is successful, moving up to assistant secretary and, later, acting secretary to the governor. Next on to Washington: John F. Kennedy is elected president in 1960, and Pat becomes special assistant to the secretary of labor, then executive assistant to the secretary of labor, and then assistant secretary of labor. Each job a step up.

Labor is not a top-tier agency, like State, Defense, Treasury, and Justice. But Pat has a remarkable talent for expanding his jurisdiction. His boss, Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg, wants a new building for his department and has his assistant draft a “Report to the President by the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space.” The subject is office space, not architecture, yet Pat tacks on his “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” which will become the U.S. government’s policy on the architecture of federal buildings. His grand proposal calls for the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue, the immense thoroughfare between the Capitol and the White House. President Kennedy likes the idea; Pat then puts together an informal group to draw up the plan.

He is a 38-year-old assistant secretary of labor when, in March 1965, he writes a government report that describes a strange pattern he has noticed in the country’s economic data. From the end of World War II through the early 1960s, whenever black male unemployment rises, so too do new welfare cases. Then, suddenly, unemployment goes down but welfare cases continue to go up. Could this be reflecting a new form of urban underclass?

The 78 pages of statistics, graphs, and tables in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” along with some dramatic phrases about a “tangle of pathology,” trace the deterioration of lower-class black family life in the inner cities. It becomes known as the “Moynihan Report” after it is leaked in August. (Also in August there are six days of large-scale rioting in Watts, a predominantly black area of Los Angeles, set off by a white highway patrolman arresting a young black motorist.) Pat means his research “to start a serious conversation among policymakers and to prod government officials into devising far-reaching socioeconomic reforms,” according to historian James T. Patterson. Instead, he is attacked as a racist, smearing black culture and “blaming the victim.” James Farmer, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, declares, “We are sick unto death of being analyzed, mesmerized, bought, sold, and slobbered over, while the same evils that are the ingredients of our oppression go unattended.”

The angry reaction to the report among liberals turns its author into an embarrassment for the national Democratic Party. He becomes a nonperson in Lyndon Johnson’s Washington as well as on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “The people you would most want to admire you [are] detesting you,” he later tells an interviewer from the New York Times. Pat returns to New York in July 1965 to run in the Democratic Party primary for president of the City Council and loses in September.

Pat turns to life in the academy. Time puts him on the cover of its July 28, 1967, issue. The article inside describes him as a “historian by training, sociologist by bent, politician by inclination, and intellectual gadfly by design.” Still, he admits to being “distressed not to have any influence on anybody” in Washington. Perhaps if Robert F. Kennedy is elected president in 1968, he will gain reentry in national affairs. Pat campaigns for Kennedy in California. But Kennedy is assassinated in Los Angeles on the day he wins the state’s Democratic primary. He writes Ted Kennedy, “I loved Bob,” yet in the letter (which he does not send) he also worries that Bob was losing sight of “the people of South Boston and Dorchester” in favor of “the salons of Central Park West.”

Pat endorses his party’s nominee, Hubert Humphrey, for whom he has personal affection. Yet in September he writes Harry McPherson, President Johnson’s counsel, “There are a great many people like me who in all realism could only expect that a Humphrey victory will mean that the persons who have so assiduously kept us out of influence in these recent years will be continued in power.”

Humphrey doesn’t win. Instead, the man of whom left-wing editor Victor Navasky declaims, “You can’t have voted for Richard Nixon and be a member of the New York intellectual establishment,” invites Pat back into Washington’s power center.

* * *

The first step in Nixon’s courtship of Pat Moynihan comes when his inner circle turns to thinking of possibilities for the cabinet. Pat’s most enthusiastic advocate is Bob Finch, whom Nixon is going to make secretary of health, education, and welfare. Another supporter, Len Garment, recalls the success of Moynihan’s ideas in Nixon’s speech on the failures of 1960s liberalism. Bob Haldeman, the president-elect’s chief of staff, tells Garment, “Nixon wants you to sound out Moynihan to see if he’s interested in coming into the administration. But if so, doing what, where?” Garment calls him and they agree to meet at the Laurent Restaurant in New York City. “It was a fine dinner,” Garment recalls. “A lot of fun, a lot of laughter, very relaxed. Two bottles of Beaujolais. We don’t want the table to be empty at any given moment.”

Finally, Garment asks, “What would you want to do?” “Transportation,” replies Moynihan.

Moynihan’s interest in transportation is not widely known—so his response is ostensibly surprising. However, in 1963 Pat had brought a young Ralph Nader into the Labor Department to work on auto safety, a match that was to have international consequences. Pat told Garment he had been thinking about the significance of the interstate highway system, which then was barely a decade old, how it had changed America: American life, industry, communications. He saw all kinds of interesting possibilities, ways of spending money that would lead to jobs and so forth.

“That can’t be,” says Garment. “We’re committed to Volpe, so it’s got to be something else.” John Volpe, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, had been considered as Nixon’s running mate during the campaign.

“Well,” replies Pat, “I’d like to have the urban equivalent of Henry Kissinger’s job on the National Security Council. A National Urban Council or whatever the name will be.”

Back in Cambridge, Pat calls me to say that Nixon wants to see him in New York. They have never met. Despite my friendships with Nixon and Moynihan, I have never recommended one to the other (although when the Nixon biography that I wrote with Earl Mazo came out before the 1968 election, I sent Moynihan a copy inscribed, “To Pat, In case you choose to hedge your bets”).

I fly to New York to join Pat after he meets Nixon at the Pierre Hotel, the site of Nixon’s transition headquarters. Pat comes into the dining room almost exploding with first impressions. He is excited by Nixon’s offer of a White House position with a broad mandate. But what Pat can’t get over is what the president-elect admits he doesn’t know about the domestic policies of his country. “He’s ignorant! He doesn’t know anything.” Pat chuckles, “I would have bluffed it.”

But what Pat mistakes for ignorance is actually disinterest. This was something made clear to me on Election Day 1962, when Nixon was running for governor of California and I was his speechwriter. I was returning home to Washington the next day when Nixon called me to say goodbye. At some point, I asked, “Do you still think you’re going to lose the race, Dick?”

“Yes,” he said. “But at least I’ll never have to talk about crap like dope addiction again.”

Dope addiction for Nixon was a local issue. What consumed Nixon was the world outside the United States and what America’s place should be in it. During my years of helping him, we never had a single discussion on domestic issues, with the possible exception of crime. He had little interest in California issues, even while seeking the governorship. His Democratic opponent, Pat Brown, kept repeating that Sacramento was Nixon’s stepping-stone to run again for the presidency in 1964. This was mildly ironic, because a principal reason Nixon ran for governor was to have an excuse not to run again against Kennedy. The political logic was that if Nixon couldn’t win when Kennedy was a backbench senator in 1960, what chance would he have when Kennedy was president?

This is the odd condition of Richard Nixon: a man who so obsessively wanted to be president of the United States did not wish to involve himself in questions of its domestic governance. Will this have consequences now that he is to be president? Turning to Pat presents intriguing possibilities: (a) Nixon, ignorant of urban affairs, but to be tutored by a great teacher, will produce creative new policies; or (b) Nixon, consumed by international affairs, will stay away from urban problems, resulting in leaderless stasis; or (c) Nixon, without knowledge of urban affairs, relying on an adviser of a different political persuasion, will create confusion and recrimination in the government.

There is little doubt that Pat wants the job. The White House will always be the center of the political world, his world. And the world is in dangerous trouble. But Pat must first convince Liz, who has the best political instincts in the family and is not happy with her husband acquiring a Nixon connection. Pat makes the case that a president’s offer of a serious assignment at a terrible time must be respected. Liz decides to stay in Cambridge with their three children; she reasons that if things do not go well for Pat in Washington, the escape back to Harvard will be less painful. In practice, this also means that Pat can do Herculean labor Monday through Friday in Washington with recuperative time in Cambridge on the weekend.

The announcement of Pat’s appointment comes a week and a day after Nixon names Kissinger his assistant for national security. With this, the president-elect gives the two key substantive jobs in his White House to professors from Harvard, where, as Kissinger writes, “the faculty disdain for Richard Nixon was established orthodoxy” and where Nixon’s feelings about “Harvard bastards” are equally explicit.

There is still more in the résumés of Nixon’s two new aides that can hardly have escaped Nixon’s notice or those in the media who have been psychoanalyzing him for at least a decade. Besides the Harvard connection, there is Nelson Rockefeller and John Kennedy. One is the Republican who always seems to be standing in Nixon’s way. In 1960, before being able to accept the Republican Party’s nomination, Nixon had to go hat-in-hand to Rockefeller’s apartment in New York City to accept changes in the party platform. The other is the Democrat who swiped the presidency from him in 1960, with the tainted help of Richard Daley in Chicago and Lyndon Johnson in Texas.

Pat Moynihan is emotionally connected to the Kennedys. A generation in Washington still remembers how, on the death of JFK, columnist Mary McGrory said to him, “We’ll never laugh again,” to which he replied, “We’ll laugh again. It’s just we’ll never be young again.” Henry Kissinger is even more firmly co nected to Nelson Rockefeller, “the single most influential person in my life,” to whose memory he will dedicate the memoirs of his years with President Nixon.

The Harvards, the Kennedys, Nelson Rockefeller all represent those whom Richard Nixon feels slighted or ignored by, even when he is the vice president of the United States—all those of the best butter, superior in breeding, who know which fork to use and consider him rancid. It is true that one of his “Harvard professors” had shined shoes on New York’s 42nd Street, and the other had escaped Hitler’s Germany. Yet for a shining moment in the life of Richard Milhous Nixon, he can raise high a middle finger at the establishment.

More significant is that the president-elect is now, at the outset of his presidency, prepared to reach out for advice from those of an intellectual weight that have never before been in his inner circle.

Excerpted from "The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House" by Stephen Hess. Published by Brookings Institution Press. Copyright 2014. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Stephen Hess

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