Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 76, the Harvard professor and four-term United States senator from New York who brought a scholar’s eye for data to politics and a politician’s sense of the real world to academia, died Wednesday in Washington.(Born 3/16/27) Moynihan underwent an appendectomy on March 11 and was being treated at Washington hospital for an infection that developed after the surgery.
From 1977 to 2001, Moynihan was more a man of ideas than of legislation or partisan combat. When other senators used August recesses to travel or raise money for re-election, he spent most of them in an 1854 schoolhouse on his farm in Pindars Corners in Delaware County, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) west of Albany, where he wrote books, nine as a senator, 18 in all.
He was enough of a politician to win re-election easily and enough of a maverick with close Republican friends to be an occasional irritant to his Democratic Party leaders.
Before the Senate, he served two Democratic presidents and two Republicans, finishing his career in the executive branch as President Richard Nixon’s ambassador to India and President Gerald Ford’s ambassador to the United Nations.
For more than 40 years, in and out of government, he became known for being among the first to identify new problems and propose novel, if not always easy, solutions, most famously in auto safety and mass transportation; urban decay and the corrosive effects of racism; and the preservation of architecturally distinctive federal buildings.
A man known for the grand gesture, as well as the bon mot, his style sometimes got more attention than his prescience, displayed notably in 1980 when he labeled the Soviet Union ‘‘in decline.’’ Among his last great causes were strengthening Social Security and attacking government secrecy.
He was known for seizing ideas and connections before others noticed. In 1963, for example, he was the co-author of ‘‘Beyond the Melting Pot,’’ which shattered the idea that ethnic identities wear off in the United States. Then, when President John Kennedy was shot in Dallas, he told every official he could find that the federal government must take custody of Lee Harvey Oswald to keep him alive to learn about the killing. No one listened.
Moynihan was a singular scholar, less an original researcher than a bold, often brilliant, synthesizer. In 1965, his foremost work, ‘‘The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,’’ identified the breakup of black families as a major impediment to black advancement. Though savaged by many liberal academics at the time, it is now generally regarded as ‘‘an important and prophetic document,’’ in the words of Professor William Julius Wilson of Harvard.
Five years later, his memo to Nixon on race relations caused another uproar. Citing the raw feelings provoked by the battles of the Civil Rights era, Moynihan suggested a period of rhetorical calm — ‘‘benign neglect,’’ he called it — a proposal widely misinterpreted as a call to abandon federal programs to improve the lives of black families.
Nonetheless, he could also be an effective legislator. In a brief turn leading the Environment and Public Works Committee in 1991 and 1992 he successfully pushed to shift highway funding toward mass transit — and get New York $5 billion in retroactive reimbursement for building the New York Thruway before the federal government began the interstate system. Wherever he went, Moynihan explored interesting buildings and worked to preserve architectural distinction. Last year, over lunch and a martini at Washington’s Hotel Monaco, an 1842 Robert Mills building that was once the city’s main post office, he recalled how he had helped rescue it from decline into a shooting gallery for drugs. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on March 16, 1927, the son of an itinerant, hard-drinking newspaperman who moved the family to New York later that year to take a job writing advertising copy. They lived comfortably in the city and suburbs until 1937 when his father, John Moynihan, left the family in poverty.
Moynihan’s childhood has been pseudo-glamorized by references to an upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen, which in fact he encountered after his mother bought a bar there when he was 20. But there was enough hardship and in stability in his early life so that when he later wrote of ‘‘social pathology,’’ he knew what he was talking about. As a youth, Pat shined shoes in Times Square and later worked as a stevedore.
After military service in the Navy, he got his bachelor’s degree at Tufts in 1948 and a master’s at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts in 1949. In 1950 he went to the London School of Economics on a Fulbright Scholarship.
Moynihan married Elizabeth Brennan, whom he met while working for the governor of New York, in May 1975. She often said she married him because he was the funniest man she ever met. They were also both ambitious and excited by politics.
He earned a Ph.D. in international relations at Syracuse University and joined the Labor Department in Washington, rising to assistant secretary. One early research assignment on office space for the scattered department gave him an opportunity to assert guiding architectural principles that have endured and produced striking courthouses: that Federal buildings ‘‘must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise vigor and stability of the American government.’’
That same report enabled him to raise the Pennsylvania Avenue issue, and he was at work on development plans on Nov. 22, 1963, when the word came that the president had been shot in Dallas. Beyond his failed efforts to protect Oswald, Moynihan marked that grim assassination weekend with a widely remembered remark about the death of the president he barely knew but idolized and eagerly followed.
On Sunday, Nov. 24, Moynihan said in a television interview, ‘‘I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess we thought we had a little more time.’’ He added softly, ‘‘So did he.’’
His first book, written jointly with Nathan Glazer, had come out earlier that year. ‘‘Beyond the Melting Pot’’ looked at the different ethnic groups of New York City and scoffed at ‘‘the notion that the intense and unprecedented mixture of ethnic and religious groups in American life was soon to blend into a homogeneous end product.’’ ‘‘The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,’’ a paper he wrote at the Labor Department early in 1965, argued that despite the Johnson Administration’s success in passing civil rights laws, statutes could not ensure equality after three centuries of deprivation. He said the disintegration of black families had reached a point of ‘‘social pathology.’’ He wrote: ‘‘The principal challenge of the next phase of the Negro revolution is to make certain that equality of results will now follow. If we do not, there will be no social peace in the United States for generations.’’
His emphasis on female-headed families led him to be accused of blaming the victims for their predicament, but in fact he wrote clearly, ‘‘It was by destroying the black family under slavery that white America broke the will of the Negro people.’’
He left the administration in 1965 as liberals denounced his paper, and then lost a bid for president of the City Council in New York City. In 1966 he went to Harvard as director of the Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard and a tenured professor in the Graduate School of Education. When Nixon was elected, Moynihan joined the White House staff as assistant to the president for urban affairs. In 1970 he wrote to the president on race relations, arguing that the issue had been rubbed raw by ‘‘hysterics, paranoids and boodlers’’ on all sides. Now, he wrote, race relations could profit from a period of ‘‘benign neglect’’ in which rhetoric, at least was toned down. In a rerun of the reaction to his paper on the black family, when this paper was leaked it was treated as if Moynihan wanted to neglect blacks.
He may have invited that interpretation by his quaintly glib language, but in fact Moynihan was pushing an idea that might have been of vast help to poor blacks, and whites. The other idea for which he was known, the Family Assistance Plan, sought to provide guaranteed income to the unemployed and supplements to the working poor, in order to stop fathers from leaving home so their family could qualify for welfare. The president made a speech for the program, sent it to the Hill, and let it die. After his service in the White House, Moynihan returned to Harvard and shifted his attention to foreign affairs. He was made ambassador to India, where he negotiated a deal to end India’s huge food aid debt to the United States, and later ambassador to the United Nations.
There he answered the United States’ its third world critics bluntly, often contemptuously.
In his brief tenure he called Idi Amin, the president of Uganda, a ‘‘racist murderer,’’ and denounced the General Assembly for passing a resolution equating Zionism with racism: ‘‘The abomination of anti-Semitism has been given the appearance of international sanction.’’ After eight months of struggles with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who wanted a less confrontational approach, he resigned in February 1976.
In that year he was elected to the U.S. Senate. With his wife in charge of each campaign, he won three landslide re-elections. He set one high goal — a seat on the Finance Committee as a freshman — and reached it. With his foreign experience, he also got a seat on the Intelligence Committee. In ‘‘Pandemonium,’’ his 1993 book about the role of ethnicity in international politics, he said that when he arrived in the Senate he ‘‘promptly aligned myself with [Henry M.] Jackson and other Democrats who were of the view that even Republicans had gone soft on Communism.’’
But he quickly came to believe that the Soviet Union was crumbling. In January, 1980, he told the Senate ‘‘The Soviet Union is a seriously troubled, even sick society. The indices of economic stagnation and even decline are extraordinary.’’
Moynihan scorned the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the 1984 mining of harbors in Nicaragua and the 1989 invasion of Panama as violations of international law, and he voted against authorizing President George H.W. Bush to make war against Iraq. The American legacy of international legal norms of state behavior is ‘‘a legacy not to be frittered away.’’
Senator Edward Kennedy once described Moynihan as an exemplar ‘‘of what the Founding Fathers thought the Senate would be about,’’ because of the New Yorker’s breadth of interests. A few years ago he was guiding a reporter through the history of Pennsylvania Avenue. He paused with disgust at 15th Street, where huge concrete barriers shaped like ugly flower pots now close the avenue in front of the White House to defend against terrorism. He dismissed the idea that the grand avenue’s rebirth was complete. ‘‘This avenue is not finished until it is open,’’ he said.