South Asia
BOOK REVIEW
Friend of India, friend of the world
The Gentleman from New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan - A Biography
, by Godfrey Hodgson

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

At a recent Harvard commencement address, former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan reminded his audience that "as the United States reacts to the mass murder of September 11, and prepares for more, it would do well to consider how much terror India endured in the second half of the last century".

That a Democratic politician would speak so directly against the grain of conventional Western cliches about the India-Pakistan-China triangle is testament to the deep intellect, value system, and sense of propriety for which Moynihan is justly famous on Capitol Hill and at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where he is now emeritus professor.

Having heard Moynihan at various podium lectures on a range of public policy subjects, including South Asia, I cannot but help imagine how much more positive America's global image would be if this great seer's opinions were implemented. Godfrey Hodgson's semi-authorized biography of Moynihan captures the essence of this "Ideas Man" of US politics, whose rectitude, decency, wisdom and commitment to good causes have won the hearts of New Yorkers, Indians and people around the world.

Shoeshine boy
Moynihan was born in 1927 to second-generation Irish Catholic immigrants who moved from Indiana to New York. His comfortable middle-class upbringing came tumbling down when his gambling father abandoned his mother in 1937, leading to a loss of both income and status for the family. Moynihan shined shoes in Times Square not just for pocket money but to buy essential provisions which his mother could not provide with the meager welfare rations.

At high school in East Harlem, Moynihan was influenced by Mensheviks like Kerensky and also Catholic anti-communists, a mixture of extreme left and right that would later lead to his lifelong ideological ambivalence. To make up for school dues, Moynihan worked on the New York piers as a stevedore, earning 78 cents an hour. In 1944, Moynihan joined the US Navy, opening the way to recouping the opportunities lost when his father deserted the family.
Political baptism
The naval assignment took Moynihan to Tufts University and then to the London School of Economics as a Fulbright Scholar. Commingling with Social Democrats of the British Labour Party, Moynihan's anti-communism was confirmed and strengthened. Even the radical LSE of the 1950s could not convert him into "anything but a New York Democrat who had some friends and who worked on the docks and drank beer after work". (p.46).

A chance encounter on the way back to America led to Moynihan working for the Robert Wagner Democratic campaign for the mayoralty of New York City. His brilliant journalistic skills soon took him to writing the campaign speeches of Averell Harriman for the New York state governorship. So enjoyable was Moynihan's stint with Harriman that he claimed, "I am carrying the briefcase, literally, of one of the central world figures of the mid-20th century." (p.53). It was on the Harriman campaign that he met Elizabeth Brennan and got married by virtue of being "the funniest man she knew".

Moynihan's first serious writing assignment came at the end of the Harriman administration in 1959, when the Maxwell School of Syracuse commissioned him to write a history of his boss' achievements in the state. With a flair for what Charles Blitzer called "uncanny ability to fix upon issues that are not yet widely noticed", Moynihan also began contributing hard-hitting articles to The Public Interest on a range of topics from automobile safety on American highways to organized crime and the effeteness of federal intelligence. This phase marked the rise of a new star who would be known for restless skepticism of the claims of powerful interest groups and "an enduring concern for the American city and its people". (p.65)

In Beyond the Melting Pot, Moynihan shattered the myth about New York City being a fish bowl in which individual cultures are subsumed, and predicted, "principal ethnic groups of New York will be seen maintaining a distinct identity, albeit a changing one from one generation to the other". (p.68)

Mr Ideas
After a limited role in the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign, Moynihan was inducted into the US Department of Labor. J Edgar Hoover, the super-powerful FBI chief, tried blocking Moynihan's appointment for his stinging critiques of how the FBI avoided fighting organized crime, but the crisis passed. Assistant Secretary Moynihan, for the first time in life, felt financially secure.

Moynihan's personal relation with the Kennedys was not very intimate, although many Irish Catholics and "New Frontier" Democrats idolized JFK. One of Moynihan's earliest jobs was to develop a plan to stem "urban decay" and redevelop Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC, tasks that invigorated his visceral interest in architecture. Under the aegis of Kennedy's war on poverty, Moynihan forcefully argued that what the poor needed most was not "community action" or a "domestic Peace Corps", but jobs and money.

After Kennedy's assassination (of which Moynihan said, famously, "we'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again"), Moynihan continued arguing on these lines as a bureaucrat in the Lyndon Johnson government. LBJ's "Great Society" could be brought about, Moynihan said, by giving the poor work and reducing unemployment. In 1964, he initiated ground-breaking research on black unemployment and the breakdown of the African American family and concluded that exploitation, discrimination, poverty and unemployment have "profoundly weakened the Negro family structure".

Later christened the "Moynihan Report", the study courageously advocated affirmative action long before it became a given in American domestic policy. So epochal were Moynihan's recommendations that they figured verbatim in LBJ's landmark Howard University "Equality of Outcome" speech in 1965.

But accusations that Moynihan was a "Kennedy man" and that his report on race problems could be politically dangerous ended in his resignation and move to Wesleyan and Harvard universities as a faculty member. At Harvard, Moynihan reflected on why the war on poverty failed and slowly developed wariness about governmental actions in the welfare area. LBJ's dream of "the Negro as an equal human being rather than a separate but equal human being" failed due to, inter alia, the sabotage of liberal left Democrats. Moynihan would never forget this skulduggery of so-called progressives.

Around this time of political exile, Moynihan began questioning America's desire to export its political system worldwide at a time when democratic values were not secure at home and when "we have not been able to get rid of racism". (p.137)

Working for Nixon
In 1968, Moynihan, the embittered Democrat, crossed over into the Republican White House after Richard Nixon promised to tackle unemployment as the key to social stability. It was a risky move that raised eyebrows and whispers of opportunism, but to Moynihan, commitment to equality was more important than labels like Democrat or Republican. His relations with Nixon were "excellent indeed", by self-admission, and it was Moynihan who took the bold measure of writing to Nixon telling him Vietnam was "a disastrous mistake" and that "we can never win such a war".

In a "General Assessment" sent to the president, Moynihan also called for a period of "benign neglect" on the rhetoric of racial equality and genuine progress toward egalitarian society. He fought bitterly against intramural rivals and spoke boldly about a family assistance plan for the poor to raise their standard of living. This eventually cost him his job, another bitter exit which he chose to blame not on Nixon or conservatives, but on fellow liberals who changed spots like chameleons.

Taking India seriously
Following a brief stint as US Public Delegate to the UN, Moynihan was sent to Delhi as ambassador in 1973. As a keen observer of world events, Moynihan had earlier "totally disagreed with Kissinger's analysis" of the 1971 Bangladesh war, asking "what the hell are we doing backing a military regime (Pakistan) and a losing one at that?" (p.199)

On speculation that Indira Gandhi was a communist, Moynihan defended her, "She had her leftist days at Oxford, but who did not?" On her allegations of covert CIA plots, he was frank enough to admit, "They know we have done such things in India." Ambassador Moynihan grumbled incessantly in diplomatic mail that American Congress and administrations "were eerily indifferent to so large and important a country as India" and that "the image of India as a land of fakirs and oxcarts was too deeply embedded in Washington".

As far as he was concerned, "there is an American interest in the economic success of India, a great nation which will be greater still". (p.212) Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's attitude of "screw India, who needs it?" and his age-old American preference for China over India seemed quixotic to Moynihan. It reflected a deeper philosophical flaw in American thinking that the world can be either Western or communist but not non-aligned. Since the advent of the Cold War, "we saw newly independent countries as candidates for the American tradition or the Russian, not perceiving that they already had a tradition of their own". (p.218)

Ambassador to the UN
Moynihan brought "unfeigned fervor and passionate commitment" to his next posting as US ambassador to the UN under Gerald Ford. His outspokenness at the Security Council, especially when racist and dictatorial regimes like Idi Amin's Uganda or Abdul Aziz Bouteflika's Algeria accused Israel of racism, won public and media encomiums. "We are not about to be lectured by police states on the processes of electoral democracy," he inveighed on one occasion.

At the same time, he disagreed with Kissinger's determination to block the admission of North Vietnam into the General Assembly, later culminating in a bitter personal feud and press rumors that "Kissinger was jealous of Moynihan's celebrity". (p.242) On Angola, Moynihan confronted Ford that he was troubled by CIA covert actions and refused to believe the president's assurance that "we are winning there".

New York's greatest senator
Moynihan's backing of Scoop Jackson for the Democratic presidential primary failed to stop Jimmy Carter in 1977, but opened the way for his own senatorial career in New York. During a hard-fought election against Bella Abzug, the New York Times recommended Moynihan in glowing terms: "In any discussion of our nation's social distress or international posture, the mind and voice of Pat Moynihan promise unique contributions." Borrowing desperately to finance his campaign against a much richer rival, Moynihan triumphed and embarked on a career that would cover him with glory.

Despite the busy schedule as New York senator, Moynihan squeezed out time to write for Newsweek, predicting in 1979 that the USSR might not outlast the 20th century. He also wrote against IRA violence in Northern Ireland and appealed to Irish Americans not to fund murderousness in the name of religion. Moynihan successfully sponsored bills increasing federal spending for New York and "setting out to teach people that New York was home to some of the poorest people and the hardest pressed communities". (p.288)

Cutting social spending for defense expenditure was particularly bad for New York state, a conviction that slowly drove Moynihan into caustic criticism of both Carter and Reagan administrations. Reagan's tax cuts and reckless spending on the military were destroying half a century's worth of government commitment to improve "health, education and welfare of our people". It was a credit to his performance in office that Moynihan's re-election in 1982 came about by the biggest margin in New York state electoral history.

During his second term, Moynihan earned a sobriquet as the "sharpest Reagan critic", lambasting US clandestine and military activities in Nicaragua and El Salvador and openly warning William J Casey, the CIA chief, "I don't like this. I don't like it one bit from the president or you." (p.307)

Upon the US invasion of Grenada (1983), Moynihan wrote in "The Law of Nations" that it was "clearly a violation of the UN Charter" and expressed dismay at how international law or the international community mattered little in Washington. Jeane Kirkpatrick's assertion that "legalistic approaches" could not deal with "communist aggression" was equally specious to a prophet who had realized that the USSR's strength and menace were being overestimated. In words that would be prescient, Moynihan chided Reagan, "Anti-communism should not be taken to the point of abandoning common sense." (p.312)

On the domestic front, Moynihan was a leading mover of the 1986 tax reform bill which dismantled tax shelters for oil, mining and banking interests and restored fairness and integrity to the fiscal system. His image as champion of the laity against cartels and special interest lobbies was so resounding that the 1988 re-election broke all previous records for margin of victory in any state.

The third term witnessed Moynihan coining the famous conceptual phrase "defining deviancy down", and his timely memo to President Bill Clinton asking him to act in Bosnia before it was too late "to come to terms with the forces of hate in the world". (p.332) The Moynihan bill on mass transit punctured, to an extent, the automobile industry's vested interest by raising gasoline prices and persuading residents of bigger cities to use public transport. Moynihan also inveigled his loathing for handguns and ammunition into Clinton's ambitious healthcare reform by raising taxes on weapons, as well as tobacco and alcohol, to defray state expenditure on universalizing health insurance.

Retiring from the ring
By the time of his fourth term, Moynihan "had become a legend, a monument, a Grand Old Man". (p.368) He denounced the new welfare bill flavored with Newt Gingrich's conservatism as "fashioning our own coffin". Cuts in welfare spending would put 3.5 million poor children "to the sword by 2001".

In his position as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Moynihan called for freedom of information against a "culture of secrecy" that had done great damage to policy making. Secrecy "served not to protect national security, but the careers and reputations of civil servants and politicians" and prolonged a "Cold War mentality". (p.389) At the ripe old age of 70, Moynihan was asking the younger generation to move in sync with the times!

On the subject of NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe, he cautioned against encouraging the feeling that "the West was encroaching and encircling Russia". On Clinton's impeachment proceedings, Moynihan made one last superlative intervention before bowing out by agreeing to censure but not impeach the president because "high crimes and misdemeanors", as per the US constitution, had to be "offenses against the United States", while Clinton's Lewinksy affair was only a "low crime".

Long after Moynihan is gone, he will be remembered by Americans, Indians and many others for what Hodgson says was "an incorruptible devotion to the common good". (p.404) In a Kissingerian America of machtpolitik and viciousness, it will be remembered that a gentleman from New York called Daniel Patrick Moynihan stood as a paladin for uprightness and decency.

The Gentleman from New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan - A Biography, by Godfrey Hodgson, Houghton Mifflin Co, 2000. ISBN 0395860423. Price US$38, 452 pages.

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Sep 28, 2002


 


 

 

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