When Daniel Patrick Moynihan first ran for the Senate in 1976, the incumbent, a Republican named James Buckley, knew exactly what to call his opponent: Professor Moynihan. New York voters, Buckley assumed, would never vote for Moynihan — who was teaching two courses at Harvard even as he campaigned — if they saw him as an out-of-touch intellectual. After all, Harvard professors are not supposed to win elections.
But Buckley was wrong. Moynihan, who died on Wednesday at the age of 76, won by a comfortable margin. He went on to represent New York in the Senate for 24 years, eventually becoming chairman of the powerful Finance Committee. But perhaps most importantly, he brought a unique way of thinking to the Senate.
American politics can attract intelligent men and women, but the political system demands action, not reflection. Consider, for example, the three Yalies currently campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. All three — John Kerry ’66, Joe Lieberman ’64 and Howard Dean ’71– are clearly bright and engaged leaders with a deep understanding of public policy, but they don’t identify themselves as intellectuals. The images they present are as men of action: Dean, the conscientious doctor; Lieberman, the devout civil rights activist; Kerry, the patriotic and principled Vietnam vet.
Moynihan, however, was a man of ideas. Yale’s libraries own copies of 23 different books and reports written by Moynihan. These publications are not political memoirs — indeed, many of them were written before Moynihan entered politics — but serious studies of American society and government.
But Moynihan did not have his head in the clouds. He was intimately familiar with the world he wrote about and later legislated. He and his family lived in a New York tenement after his father left them, and he served in the Navy during World War II. As former Sen. Bill Bradley said, “Pat Moynihan sees great truths where others are lost in a fog of politics, and he sees mothers and children, and people struggling for meaning in their lives, where others see only abstract policy choices.”
Moynihan’s vision was unique because it transcended the divide between academia and politics — a divide which, in many ways, makes perfect sense. The “ivory tower” is no myth. When it comes to mindsets, Yale and City Hall are separated by much more than the New Haven Green.
Moynihan’s career suggests that the gap can be bridged. Moynihan was a man of ideas, but he was no idealist. He was extremely effective at bringing federal funds to New York, and he operated well in the collegial environment of the Senate. He knew that being thoughtful — or even being right — was not necessarily the same as getting re-elected.
But his academic background allowed him to look at the world differently from many of his colleagues. In hindsight, Moynihan was extremely prescient. He identified the effects of family disintegration on poverty and crime long before policymakers began considering the needs of single mothers. He saw that the Soviet Union was in decline almost a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Now, more than ever, this country needs leaders who can think about unconventional problems in unconventional ways. Moynihan possessed that imagination, and it allowed him to understand problems and solutions that his colleagues could not foresee. This unique way of thinking cannot come from listening to the advice of staffers or conducting focus groups. It requires an analytic — and yes, intellectual — approach to the world, one that appreciates the value of both action and reflection.
Much has been made of the so-called public intellectual — the academic who is able to speak to all of society. But Moynihan was not merely a public intellectual; he was a political intellectual. For academics to have real effect on the direction of public policy, going on NPR is not enough. Moynihan showed that great ideas can only be implemented with a sufficient degree of dirty work, including campaigning, compromising and even fund raising.
As a senator, monumental legislative achievements often eluded Moynihan. Yet even if some of his great causes remain unfulfilled, his impact extended far beyond the passage of bills. Professor Moynihan’s legacy suggests that we can and should expect our intellectuals to be politically involved and our politicians to be intellectually engaged.
Jacob LeibenluftJacob Leibenluft is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.