Remembering Moynihan

Posted March 26, 2004 at 2:07pm

The late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) predicted the fall of the Soviet Union nearly a decade before it happened. At the time, his colleague Henry Kissinger found Moynihan’s prediction to be unlikely.

So, four months after the Soviet Union collapsed, Kissinger wrote a letter to Moynihan that read: “Dear Pat, I stand corrected. Your crystal ball was better than mine. Henry Kissinger.”

The letter is among the many photographs, letters, books and mementos from Moynihan’s life documented in “New York’s Moynihan,” an exhibit launching today at the Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan.

Despite its New York location, organizers believe Moynihan’s story will attract visitors from the Washington area. They point to a 15-foot-tall wall in the exhibit that highlights his accomplishments in the Senate, for example.

“Not only did he have this remarkable intellect and range of interests, he actually served in a variety of ways and roles … and each role informs the other,” said Thomas Mellins, curator of special exhibits at the museum.

The exhibit will be on display through the end of September, including during the Republican National Convention.

Moynihan, who died last year, was a well-known Democrat. But his willingness to work with opposing party members on important issues will be an attraction for convention visitors, said Susan Hensaw Jones, director of the museum and a former president of the National Building Museum in Washington.

“He was an enormously collegial Senator and had wonderful friendships across the aisle,” Jones said. “He was a man who had many, many warm friends who were Republicans, and who are Republicans.”

The exhibit grew out of an interest to display Moynihan’s accomplishments in environmental and public architecture issues, Mellins said. But as exhibit planning began, organizers decided to cover a multitude of his endeavors.

“I wanted to convey some of this man’s personality and character,” Mellins said. “That is obviously a hard thing to capture.”

In an attempt to do this, Mellins said the exhibit is document driven, not object driven. Photographs drive the display, he said, and letters, reports and books written and researched by Moynihan bring depth.

The first room of the exhibit features pillars highlighting the many roles Moynihan played, which in addition to Senator included professor, ambassador and New Yorker, Jones said. The pillars then connect visitors to the displays that study in great detail Moynihan’s many accomplishments.

The displays themselves are as diverse as Moynihan’s life. They include a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis written in the 1980s thanking Moynihan for his efforts to revive Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington; actual facsimiles from his 1965 work “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which documented the relationship between family disintegration and poverty; and Moynihan’s hat, bowtie, Senate desk and typewriter.

Moynihan’s attachment to New York shines through, organizers said. Moynihan grew up in the city, shining shoes on 42nd Street and working on the docks for 78 cents an hour as a young man. These experiences helped shape his life later on, they said.

“We feel that he’s a real New Yorker,” Jones said. “He’s a product of the city, of the streets of New York, and it framed him and framed his concerns.”

But his work for the entire world is what visitors will most get out of the exhibit, they said.

“He saw himself as a writer, social scientist and teacher,” Jones said. “That was who he was.”

“New York’s Moynihan” runs through Sept. 26 at The Museum of the City of New York. For more information, call (212) 534-1612.