An honest intellect remembered
WASHINGTON — Even in death, Pat Moynihan continues to surprise. He is being laid to rest Monday not in a family plot somewhere in New York but in Arlington National Cemetery - with full military honors. How many of his admirers and constituents ever knew how proud he was of - barely out of high school - having served in the Navy at the end of World War II? Or that this man so well known for scholarship and politics would opt to spend eternity with soldiers and sailors?
That there's no family plot also has to do with the fact that he grew up without much of a family. (He later acquired a remarkable wife and had three talented kids.) His father exited when Pat was 10, leaving a poor family in the throes of the depression. He really did shine shoes in Times Square and work on the docks. His mother did own a bar in Hell's Kitchen. This man who devoted much of his career to family breakdown, poverty, welfare, and social dysfunction knew such things up close.
And what a career it was. The political analyst Michael Barone once termed Pat the nation's best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson. What's more, he was a gifted teacher, a man who nurtured the careers of hundreds, a discerning architecture buff and urban visionary, an expert on auto safety and Social Security, a diplomat of power and influence, a wit and raconteur, a social commentator with few peers - and on and on.
Perhaps more than anything else, he was a man of intellectual strength and integrity, who lived and breathed the maxim that "ideas have consequences" and who was unafraid to speak the truth, as he saw it, even to those who didn't want to hear it.
That's not so unusual a trait in tenured professors, which Pat also was from time to time. But of how many successful politicians can that be said? (New York's fractious voters sent him to the US Senate four times.) Of how many ambassadors? (He held that post both in New Delhi and at the UN.) Or presidential advisers? (He served four presidents, including two years in Nixon's White House.)
The norm in public life today is to tell people what they want to hear. The norm on Capitol Hill is a nice haircut atop a mind more attuned to polls and focus groups than data or ideas. The norm in diplomacy is to make nice, not to confront tyrants and abusers of human rights. The norm at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is to tell the president things that please him. The norm in speech giving is to amuse and flatter one's audience.
Pat violated all those norms - and rather enjoyed doing so. I've often thought of him as innately countercyclical, the personification of his influential essay entitled "The United States in Opposition." It was not simply perverse, however, as in, "You say it's raining and I'll insist the sun is shining." Rather, it was a deeper skepticism about the conventional wisdom and wariness of oversimplification, a refusal to be swayed by the crowd if the data told him otherwise. One who knew him for four decades e-mailed me the other day, "He could stand off to the side of society, and see it as it really was, putting aside all the pretense. A spade, after all, was a spade."
How Pat loved data - and how much more he saw in it than most of us do. For example, it was the simplest of data about the Soviet Union that led him, a decade ahead of the CIA, to predict the collapse of that regime. Where most of us would see a fact, he would spot the trend line. Where most of us would extrapolate into the near future, he would peer around the corner and glimpse the long-term consequences of the trend he'd found. Better than anyone I've known, he could imagine what wasn't yet visible, whether a grand design for rebuilding Pennsylvania Avenue or the consequences for America's black population if out-of-wedlock birthrates kept rising. Where most of us look out of one eye at statistics and out of the other at the world around us, Pat had a peerless ability to blend what he saw with what the numbers showed - and then explain that blend in vivid language so that the rest of us could begin to picture it.
This sometimes got him into trouble. Henry Kissinger didn't like his candor at the UN, especially about the centrality of human rights. Lots of people were upset by his report on the "Negro family" - and again when he told Nixon that the issue of race itself might benefit from a period of "benign neglect." Bill and Hillary Clinton were not at all pleased by his criticism of their signature healthcare plan. Indeed, there's quite a list of occasions when his candor and integrity - and irreverence and puckishness - riled audiences, superiors, and interest groups.
But that didn't deter him from speaking the truth as he understood it. And most of the time he turned out to be right.
Pat had his shortcomings. He could be vain and a bit pompous. He didn't deal well with criticism. He sometimes took pleasure in being obscure. He got to the office late (though his productivity was staggering). And he was definitely not easy to work for.
Yet he attracted a marvelously talented cadre of helpers over the years - a large, bipartisan, and multiethnic club. It spans many fields of endeavor. And it's full of people who attribute no small part of their own notable achievements to their apprenticeship with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I'm proud to be one of them.
• Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education, is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. He was a graduate student of Mr. Moynihan's and also served with him at the White House, in New Delhi, and on his Senate staff.