By George Will
WASHINGTON – On Jan. 9, 1969, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a memo to President-elect Richard Nixon, on whose White House staff Moynihan was to serve. Moynihan wondered whether the disintegration of “private sub-systems of authority” presaged “the ultimate, destructive working out of the telos of liberal thought,” in which case “we are moving from Locke to Hobbes.” Imagine, if you can, Nixon’s furrowed brow.
Or imagine Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, reading this from Moynihan concerning proposals by some “lady decorators” to refurbish the White House mess: “I told them as nicely but firmly as I could that this … was not to be an extension of the erotic longings of middle-aged corporation wives whose husbands had acquired interests elsewhere, but maintained the domestic accounts in guilty abundance.”
“Everyone,” Moynihan liked to say, “is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Now, thanks to Steven Weisman’s meticulous editing of “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary,” everybody is entitled to Moynihan’s opinions. Some tidbits from the feast:
By 1966, the civil rights movement’s task was to become “a protest movement against situations rather than statutes” – to change from upholding legal rights in the South to addressing problems of class in the North.
To some Indians, while Moynihan was ambassador to India: “Food growing is the first thing you do when you come down out of the trees. The question is, how come the United States can grow food and you can’t?”
The 1972 presidential campaign “was a routine exercise: Republican moralism, Democratic hysteria, voter indifference.”
On his 1974 decision to return to Harvard: “My only pleasure is that there is now a great deal of street crime (in Cambridge). Privately the undergraduates are learning what we pigs have tried to tell them about the uses of order, as against their beloved disorder.”
On the war to liberate Kuwait: “So long as our troops are sleeping on sand, it would be nice if those Kuwaiti billionaires would get the hell out of the Presidential Suite of the Sheraton Hotel in the Saudi resort town of Taif in favor of a more battle-ready position.”
Moynihan knew the error of the liberal expectancy – the belief that modernity would drain the power of ethnicity and religion. And he had a gimlet eye for signs of the saliency of ethnicity: “The Eastern European Jews arrived in New York bringing with them a thousand years of experience of living in cities as merchants, combined with a similarly urban attitude that held that there is nothing unmanly about operating a sewing machine: the result of these, and a number of other factors, was Seventh Avenue.”
Moynihan enriched America’s political lexicon with “defining deviancy down” (defining as normal kinds of conduct previously stigmatized) and “iatrogenic government” (an iatrogenic ailment is induced inadvertently by a medical treatment). He likened government bureaucracies dispensing social services to the poor, rather than income maintenance, as “feeding the sparrows by feeding the horses.” His point in saying that the subject of race could benefit from a period of “benign neglect” was to encourage “some equivalence between what government can do about certain problems and how much attention it draws to them.”
Moynihan noted that in 1956 it was not the Republicans who rejected Adlai Stevenson, it was working-class Democrats: Stevenson did well among “the professional and upper elements” but “lost Brooklyn and the Bronx in droves.” Moynihan had spotted the birth of Reagan Democrats. In 1998, he wrote to a British friend: “I have been sending around copies of the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom.’ … Introduction by Milton Friedman. The point is that conservatives are discovering a history they didn’t know they had.”
Moynihan – the only person to have served in the cabinets or subcabinets of four consecutive presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford) – said politics is an argument about the future: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
Today, seven years after Moynihan’s death, conservatism’s contention is that liberal politics produces a culture of dependency and a government riddled with rent-seeking – the manipulation of government power for private advantage. Would that Moynihan were here to elevate the liberal side of the debate, as he did throughout his well-lived life.
George Will writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071.