In more than one sense, former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan lit up the Senate and the world. Intellectually brilliant, he illuminated both, divining and pointing out truths that lesser minds would not have seen without him. Witty, eloquent and sometimes contrarian, the New York Democrat was a center of attention and, usually, a delight. His life and service were an inspiration.
At his death last week, Moynihan left behind monuments of stone and marble, books, wisecracks and marvelous memories. Take Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, once a dismal stretch of pawn and souvenir shops. Along with former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Moynihan was responsible for its transformation into a grand inaugural boulevard. He was also the moving force behind the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judicial Building near Union Station — and its dazzling architecture.
Then again, as a number of Senators noted in their eulogies last week, when the (in his mind, architecturally challenged) Hart Senate Office Building was unveiled, he called for its plastic cover to be put back on. He remarked, “Even in a democracy, there are things it is as well the people do not know about their government.” A lobbyist who flew to New York with Moynihan remembers the Senator reading a headline proclaiming a new “family policy” devised by President Ronald Reagan and harrumphing, “This isn’t a policy. It’s a tantrum!”
Moynihan was a man of immense intellectual courage, withstanding years of abuse for his correct 1965 observation that the collapse of the black family would produce chronic social problems. He was also abused for his observation, during service in the Nixon administration, that after years of demonstrations and rhetorical turmoil, U.S. race relations deserved a period of “benign neglect.” Yet he made the well-being of poverty-stricken Americans one of his lifelong purposes. As Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) recalled last week, Moynihan often said, “If you don’t have 30 years to devote to social policy, don’t get involved.”
Serving on the Intelligence Committee, he observed in 1980 — long before almost anyone else — that the Soviet Union was destined for collapse. Chairing the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation, he built highways — while shifting highway funds to mass transit. As chairman of the Finance Committee, he blocked Social Security cuts and advocated reform, promoted charitable giving, and maintained the deductibility of state taxes. And, along with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), he successfully fought the line-item veto in court, protecting a key legislative prerogative.
As Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) observed, Moynihan lived a life that could happen “only in America … to know what it is like to shine shoes and work on the docks, and at the same time to reach the intellectual heights. … It gives hope to everybody in this country and the world.”