Michael Kinsley reviews a new collection of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s writings and concludes that today’s politicians are boring boring boring.
His attitude toward the Establishment was complex: He despised it — and wanted in. Early in the book, Moynihan writes to Theodore White, author of “The Making of the President 1960” (a book that reinvented political journalism by finding drama in the minutiae of election campaigns, thereby paving the way, a half-century later, for POLITICO). Moynihan jokes about applying for membership in the Cosmos Club, a literary-flavored gentlemen’s club in Washington. What could be more ridiculous for an Irishman who grew up poor and fatherless in the Bowery? But by Page 513, he is personally blackballing aristocratic Democrat doyenne Pamela Harriman from the (now co-ed) Century Club, an even hoitier institution in New York. Apparently during his first run for the Senate, in 1976, she spread the rumor that he drank more than perhaps is wise. Or, as Moynihan puts it, she “slandered me in the most vicious and hurtful terms.” Vicious? I’m sure she did her best. Hurtful? No doubt. Slander? Well …
He famously dressed like an English dandy, while denying any interest in clothes, but his working-stiff-versus-the-rich-bastard bile was genuine and not a politician’s log-cabin pose. In 1970, during the student protests against the Vietnam War, he wrote a stunning unsolicited letter to the head of the committee searching for a new president of Harvard. He described attending a dinner party in Washington at which he had to listen to his host’s daughter and her boyfriend, both Harvard undergrads, talk a lot of nonsense about the evils of Harvard and American society in general. The letter oozes contempt for the “class arrogance” of “children of the upper class” making demands of the “frightened patricians” in charge. He concluded, “You need a man with balls for this job.” Then, reverting from Bowery tough to distinguished scholar, he added, “And brains.”
In 1973, he wrote to Pat Buchanan, “You … are a poor Irishman well into a career of writing speeches for conservative millionaires and their protégés. I am probably an even poorer one … in a career [of] writing speeches for liberal millionaires and their protégés. I have got some good meals out of it but damn little else.” Moynihan made this appeal to ethnic working-class solidarity in the course of asking Buchanan to stop picking on the Ford Foundation. Its president, the blue-blood McGeorge Bundy, was a friend.
Who in the Senate today is as out-and-out interesting as Pat Moynihan? It’s tempting to say that they don’t make them like that anymore. But of course they do. The trouble is that the humiliating process of raising money, the nastiness of a well-run campaign and the legislative paralysis when you get there all favor the robo-pol with nothing but politics in his or her head.