Daniel Patrick Moynihan takes a call at his home office...

Daniel Patrick Moynihan takes a call at his home office in upstate New York in 1980. Credit: American Masters/The Moynihan Family

THE SHOW "Moynihan" on "American Masters"

WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Friday on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT "His life was one of the broadest and deepest careers in American history," says this Jeffrey Wright-narrated film on Daniel Patrick Moynihan, part of the "Thought Leaders" series of "American Masters" (William F. Buckley airs April 5.)

Born into a working class family in 1927 Oklahoma, Moynihan's parents divorced when he was a child, and he later moved to New York City (he'd eventually live in Hell's Kitchen) where he attended City College of New York, and after a stint in the Navy, got a PhD from Tufts University. He later joined the Lyndon Johnson administration (assistant secretary of Labor), and Richard Nixon's (assistant to the president for domestic policy, later counselor to the president.) After stops as ambassador to India, then the United Nations, he was a U.S. Senator from 1977 to 2001.

MY SAY What emerges from this portrait is what's missing from it — Moynihan's tangible accomplishments over four terms in the Senate, or as adviser to four presidents, ambassador to India, as Nixon's domestic czar and author of one of the controversial (and ultimately debunked) policy papers of the mid-1960s: "The Negro Family in America — the Case for National Action," aka "The Moynihan Report."

There are no landmark bills to speak of or historic feats of statesmanship. Instead, Moynihan was a man of ideas — big ones, and some little ones. (He apparently had lots of thoughts about architectural design.) Obviously brilliant, he was an intellectual, a gadfly, an ethicist, a moral conscience, a professor, a policy wonk. He was a prodigious producer of words in service of those ideas that found their way into the heady, and densely packed pages of magazines like The Reporter, Commentary and The Public Interest. His chief of staff, Richard Eaton, recalls here that he'd hear typing from the boss' office first thing in the morning, while George F. Will mentions the line (or joke) that Moynihan wrote more books than his Senate colleagues had read. (Maybe true — a total of 18, while a Google search cites another 19 book-length monographs.)

Sen. Chuck Schumer recalls that a colleague once told him, "You sure wouldn't want a Senate with a hundred Moynihans, but you sure need a Senate with one or two." In fact, that may be the point: There hasn't been a Pat Moynihan in the Senate since Pat Moynihan himself.

"Moynihan'' tends to rush past the Senate years if only because there's so much to get through in the years prior. In a cause-and-effect argument laid out over five chapters, "The Negro Family" argued that "the racist virus in the American blood stream [that] still afflicts us," had destroyed the Black family — directly counter to the arguments of Black policymakers who laid the blame on job discrimination and lack of voting rights. His wife, Elizabeth Moynihan — who died in November at 94 — said "The Moynihan Report" "blew up in his face."

A public intellectual, Moynihan was most comfortable with those ideas, not ideologies. That made it hard to pin down his politics — harder still after he became a close ally of Nixon, who supported Moynihan's "Family Assistance Plan'' which would have provided aid to working class families. (It lost by one vote in the Senate.)

Was Moynihan a neo-con — a label he despised — or a liberal democrat? Many couldn't be sure, including his own admirers. This "Masters" doesn't exactly settle the argument but makes a case for the label of New Deal Democrat. He deployed ideas to wage war on poverty, and that "racist virus,"  and in so doing accomplished a great deal, "Moynihan" claims.  Upon leaving the U.N., the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, said, "His voice will be hard to replace." It probably never was.

BOTTOM LINE Thoughtful portrait of a supremely thoughtful public figure.


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