MAXWELL:  Too few Moynihans

8/5/1996 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The Almanac of American Politics 1996 describes New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan as “the nation’s best thinker among politicians since (Abraham) Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since (Thomas) Jefferson.”

This is a well-deserved compliment. Since the 1950s, when he began his political career as an aide to Gov. Averell Harriman, Moynihan has impressed colleagues and average Americans alike with his brilliant intellect, oratory and writing. And, of course, he is and always will be remembered for his controversial, scholarly pronouncements on welfare and poverty.

He is in the spotlight again because the Republican-led 104th Congress has overwhelmingly passed a comprehensive welfare bill that uproots a more-than-three-decades-old safety net for the poor. For Moynihan, the new welfare measure is “loathsome,” epitomizing shallow, unscholarly thinking in the name of expediency. And he should know. The former Harvard professor has spent more than 30 years thinking, talking and writing about welfare.

Many argue that his 1965 book, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, was a prescient initiation of welfare reform. Moynihan was severely attacked, and still is in some quarters, for his foresight and candor. Many of his detractors, both black and white, called him a racist because he understood that the disintegration of the urban black family had reached dangerous levels and could condemn future generations to poverty far into the next century.

The Negro Family, critics argued, blamed the victim. Nothing was further from truth. Moynihan did not blame the victim. He blamed fatherlessness, or illegitimacy, as the major cause of family breakdown among blacks. Unfortunately, time and events may have vindicated him. Unlike many other academics, however, Moynihan did more than think and write about problems. In 1988, for example, he wrote the Welfare Reform Act, which demanded that fathers support their children and introduced the experimental use of workfare.

Today, the rest of the nation has come full circle since the publication of The Negro Family, with no sincere person questioning the book’s basic tenets. Sadly, instead of using Moynihan’s research as a blueprint, the new welfare bill is not a genuine, thoughtful effort to reform the system but a brazen attempt to dismantle it. The nation’s best academic minds did not work on this legislative monstrosity.

We have too few Moynihans on Capitol Hill. While many of his colleagues spend their summers golfing and politicking, Moynihan retreats to upstate New York to read, think and write. Back on the Senate floor, he again must face the mundane, crass partisanship that militates against intellectualism and debases the concept of doing what is best for the common good.

About Moynihan, The Almanac of American Politics writes: “This is the kind of philosopher-politician who the Founding Fathers hoped would people the Senate _ although they would have been surprised to see one spring, as Moynihan did, from the Manhattan slum of Hell’s Kitchen.”

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.