Mike McCurry: “We should always find a place to honor Pat Moynihan’s kind of insight and service.”
“A president that Daniel Patrick Moynihan much admired and served flattered a 1962 audience of Nobel Laureates at the White House by telling them they were the “most extraordinary collection of talent and human knowledge that has ever been gathered together, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
I am not conferring that Kennedy-esque distinction on all of you. But I can say this: There would be no doubt in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s mind that there has never been an assemblage of smart and able public intellectuals who helped staff a United States senator than this group here tonight. Except when Moynihan himself sat alone over his Smith-Corona typewriter in the Russell Senate Office Building.
Let’s face it. Those who worked for Senator Moynihan enjoyed the costs and joys of that tutoring and came away with the love/hate relationship we know so well. We have never been so worked and tried and stressed, but few of us have ever been as richly rewarded with new knowledge and insights.
And with memories about precision, and reaction time, and appreciation for detail and statistics, and with time to look at clover and architecture and the bottom of a good glass of whiskey. We grew up and came of age in an extraordinary seminar that will likely never have another equal in our lives.
I was asked to reflect on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s larger legacy. Why an award in his name? I can think of many reasons to give an award to my friend Bob Greenstein. But the reason he deserves a Moynihan Prize is because of that appreciation for policy, politics, and argumentation that Senator Moynihan seared in the souls of all of us here who learned in his many classrooms.
Some of us learned an appreciation for data and how statistics tell us something incontrovertible about the human condition. Some of us learned how history shapes the ongoing dialogue about what we do in the future. Some of us learned how to bring bruised combatants in a vicious intellectual dispute back together for reconciliation. Some of us learned raw politics and what it takes to win every single damn county in New York State. Some of us— me—learned the lesson on a photo that he once inscribed quoting the great editor Harold Ross—He (Moynihan) signed a photo to me while he was re-editing one of my efforts to—slightly—improve one of his famous newsletters to constituents called a “Dear Yorker” letter – “Mike,” he said, “editing is about quarrelling with good writers.”
We all have our own image of Moynihan, the public intellectual. Mine is on the invitation that coincidentally came to you all for this dinner.
I know the circumstances of this image because it was taken on a day in early August 1981 in Buffalo at the offices of the Courier-Express after we had just done an editorial board meeting. The editor, “of a sudden”, (as Moynihan would say) got word that a former Buffalo mayor—Stan Makowski—had just died. Would Senator Moynihan, he asked, be willing to give a quote? “A quote?” Senator Moynihan snorted? “Let me write an appreciation.” He proceeded to sit in the newsroom of the newspaper with the other ink-stained wretches and wrote an appreciation that spoke of the former mayor’s love of politics, love of the machine, and love of Moynihan’s special efforts to get federal funding for the famous Louis Sullivan Guaranty Building in Buffalo. I sat there with my new boss, Tim Russert, our chief of staff, and I remember him looking at me and saying, “Kid, this is different than what you will get used to.”
We cannot get used to a new normal where U.S. senators cannot sit down at a typewriter and compose an elegant tribute that touches art, politics, urban history, sociology, and good old-fashioned common sense. We—who are Moynihan’s legacies because we are here and he is not—cannot succumb to the vapid and sulfurous climate that exists today. (“Sulfurous” a beautiful word I think I first heard Daniel Patrick Moynihan use to describe the toxic environment of Washington before it became more so.)
We have some duty to bring Moynihan’s sense of precision, facts, history, and politics together to create a better environment for problem solving. How many of you, like me, have recently quoted Moynihan’s aphorism: “We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts”?
In our opinionated, divided, polarized, dysfunctional Washington I remember that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a guy who could engineer a 98-0 Senate resolution against Ronald Reagan’s effort to dismember Social Security, but could work a year later to develop curbs on entitlements to preserve the Social Security trust fund until its next crisis.
I also remember—painfully—that he told me that the plan for health care reform of my president’s wife would not work because “the era of big government is over”—something that the president finally acknowledged in a State of the Union address two years later.
Pat Moynihan secretly enjoyed confounding those who tried to typecast him. He got his friend in the Senate, Barry Goldwater to cut a spot in favor of his re-election in 1982.
Can you imagine a senior Senator doing a TV ad in favor of his colleague across the aisle today? Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of politics classic crossover acts—and we need more of them today.
Here’s a secret: his private bathroom in the Russell Building, the only place that was purely and only his own had a framed picture of two magazine covers. One was “National Review” heralding Moynihan as the “conscience of the neo-conservatives.” Next to it was, framed, a “New Republic” cover that proclaimed: “Moynihan: The Hope for the Neo-Liberals.”
He did not change. As he [and Liz] often argued. But Washington sure changed in and around the time of the two magazine covers. Washington is still changing. Some of us hope for the better. But many people in our country think the change is not for much.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan reminds us that we can speak across generations, political divides, administrations with different political pedigrees, different social classes—Hell’s Kitchen Stevadores, Harvard Dons, and Senate Chairmen—and find a place of common endeavor and common good. We should always find a place to honor that kind of insight and service. And in that effort, we have done well in locating the winner of the Moynihan Prize this year.”
Mike McCurry’s Tribute to Daniel Patrick Moynihan