A True Capacity For Governance’


My father, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, grew up in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and is now, at fifty-nine, the senior senator from his home state. He began his education in New York’s public schools, the Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem and City College of New York. After serving in the Navy, he received his bachelor’s degree from Tufts University in 1948 and his Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He began his career in government as an aide to New York’s governor Averell Harriman from 1955 to 1958. It was there he met my mother, Elizabeth Brennan, herself a Harriman aide. He went on to serve in the cabinets of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, the only person in American history to serve in four successive cabinets or sub-cabinets. When he was the United States ambassador to India from 1973 to 1975, the family accompanied him, and the adventure was to change our lives, transforming my mother into a scholar of Mogul landscape architecture and my brother and me into inveterate travelers. When we returned from Asia, my father was appointed United States permanent representative to the United Nations from 1975 to 1976. He was elected to the Senate in 1976 and reelected in 1982 by the largest majority in a nonpresidential year in the Senate’s history. He is a member of the Senate Finance, Budget, Environment, and Public Works committees. For seven years he was vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

When not practicing government, my father has taught it, at such universities as Syracuse, Wesleyan, and finally at Harvard, where he was a tenured professor for ten years. I believe he was an excellent teacher; many of his students, whom I knew, have made successful careers in government service.

When I was a child 1 always told people that my father’s profession was writing. I still feel that writing is his greatest gift and first love. (I have saved all the letters and poems he has written me over the years; he is a skilled humorist.) He has authored, coauthored, and edited thirteen books, including Beyond the Melting Pot with his friend Nathan Glazer, a study of ethnicity in New York City; A Dangerous Place , about his tenure at the United Nations; and most recently Family and Nation , an examination of the problems besetting America’s poor families.

I have enjoyed the privilege of his company, wit, and brilliance for twenty-eight years. This conversation took place in the arbor garden of our Washington home, a five-minute walk from his office in the old Russell Office Building.

Dad, do you feel that you are a part of a particular intellectual tradition?

I’m part of a political tradition in the United States, the Democratic persuasion.

Can you define that?

As Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, I can’t easily define it but I know it when I see it. I don’t see much of that tradition around these days and I’d like to see more.

Who are your heroes? Woodrow Wilson? John Stuart Mill? William Butler Yeats? John F. Kennedy? Fred Astaire? Any of the above?

Well, if I had a hero in contemporary American life, it would be Gerald Ford.


In a moment of great crisis he helped heal our country, and left it intact. (I wish he hadn’t run for President. I wish he had just walked away from it.) He was a man of enormous integrity, and everybody knew it. And when the country needed someone like him, he was there. But also, I must say this about President Nixon: He had the sense to choose Ford.

You’ve said that John F. Kennedy was, in many ways, your President.

Oh, yes, yes. I was a delegate at Los Angeles as a young man. Your mother ran Citizens for Kennedy in Onondaga County, in Syracuse, where I was teaching. She convinced Robert Kennedy that if Jack Kennedy could carry Syracuse, he’d carry New York. And if he carried New York, he’d carry the country. The first phone call Robert Kennedy made out of the Hyannis compound on election night was to Liz at 9:15. And Liz said, “We carried Syracuse!“—which had not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1936. Soon we came down here to Washington as young people full of enthusiasm. We’d won. That only happens once.

How did the assassination of President Kennedy affect you?

Well, it brought us all up sharply to the realization of how transitory things are. I was interviewed on the day of that event and I said, “I suppose there’s no point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.” But we thought we’d have a little more time. Then I remarked, “Our revels now are ended”—a line from The Tempest . If you had beat me with chains, I couldn’t have remembered the line: it just came of its own. And the revels were indeed ended.

In recent conversations we’ve had, you’ve drawn some comparisons between the twentieth century and the nineteenth century indicating that ours is an alarmingly brutal time. To what do you attribute this?