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A True Capacity For Governance’

June 2024
21min read

Despite his feeling that “we are beginning to lose the memory of what a restrained and civil society can be like,” the senior senator from New York—a lifelong student of history—remains an optimist about our system of government and our extraordinary resilience as a people

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?

Recently I was asked to write an article on the Statue of Liberty for the centennial celebration. I agreed, then refused. 1 had nothing whatever to say about the statue. But my thoughts turned to that sonnet Emma Lazarus wrote for the original fund-raising effort, and it came to me how extraordinarily wrong she was about the immigration of the second half of the nineteenth century. She writes about the Lady standing there by the Golden Door saying, “Give me your tired,/Your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” referring to Europe. “Wretched refuse.” I thought, what on earth ever gave her that idea? Because surely this was one of the most self-confident and capable bunch of people who ever crossed an ocean. All those immigrants at that time paid their own way, knew what they were doing, and did it very well.

I looked into her life and found an interesting story. She was the daughter of a well-to-do Sephardic family in New York City. Her first poems were privately printed. Emerson asked her to spend a week at Concord. She wrote articles for Scribner’s Monthly , that most uplifting of journals; wrote a five-act verse play set in seventeenth-century Italy, and such like. Then came the 188Os, and she became horrified by the pogroms that were going on in Russia—the murder of Jews by mobs. When in turn I looked up pogroms in the Encyclopaedia Judaica , 1 found that perhaps two hundred persons were murdered by mobs in Russia at the time. The last major pogrom in the 188Os took place in Nizhni Novgorod: nine Jews were killed and the authorities sent seventy rioters to prison with severe sentences. Now you could say, “Only nine people were killed?”—that would be a quiet weekend in New York City today. Well, for the second half of the nineteenth centuy, it was an outrage! And of course, it is an outrage—the nineteenth-century world was outraged—but it wouldn’t be outrageous among people whose sensibilities have been brutalized as ours have been. The crux is that we are beginning to lose the memory of what a restrained and civil society really can be like. It all came to an end in 1914 with the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand.

If I had a hero in contemporary American life, it would be Gerald Ford … he helped heal our country.

How, then, has life changed?

We don’t have a memory any longer of a world in which technology did not have the means of mass destruction. To give you an example: On the day the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815—after twenty-one years of conflict with France and the United States—Palmerston, who was Britain’s secretary at war, reported to Parliament exactly what British casualties had been. In a near quarter-century of war, they had lost something like twenty thousand dead, sixteen thousand of these in the army, of whom one-sixth died in the last week of the campaign that ended in Waterloo. A century later the British lost sixty thousand men in just one afternoon on the Somme.

Since World War I the prospects of democracy as a system of government in the world have faded. We seem to be under attack the world over. These are themes you have reiterated over the years. But you have also said that our strength lies in our capacity to govern ourselves. So again, how can we endure?

Just as we have all but lost the memory of how civilized the nineteenth century was, by the standards of the twentieth century, we have forgotten that at the turn of the century the expectation that the future of the world would be one of democratic societies was deeply ingrained. It was a progress that seemed inevitable. Look into that wonderful book The American Commonwealth by Lord Bryce (we have a bust of him in the Senate on the third floor—one of the few foreigners in the building). He wrote this grand, great work about the American commonwealth. In his preface he asked, “Now why am I doing this?” And essentially what he said was: “The answer is evident, is it not? that across the globe people assume that it is American arrangements—the arrangements specifically of the American democracy, their political arrangements—that are going to be dominant in the future, that are going to prevail.” But then, at the very moment when that expectation attained its greatest ascendancy, in 1918 with Woodrow Wilson—no man in the history of the world, before or ever since, has ever had the hold on the imagination of the world’s population as Woodrow Wilson did—at that very moment the totalitarian state appeared. It came with Lenin to Russia. And suddenly, the world had a new future—wholly new, wholly different. Just as the Holocaust was something wholly different from pogroms, and the Somme something wholly different from Waterloo, the totalitarian state was something wholly different from czarist Russia. Czarist Russia was a mild form of government compared with the one that succeeded it. The whole twentieth century has declined in all these matters. What can history do but tell you where you are by measuring in terms of where you have been? You don’t know much about the future but you know a lot about the past—and if we don’t recognize this decline in our expectations of the general way people behave, we are apt to take as necessary or normal what is neither necessary nor normal but simply very specific to our age.

You’ve said that from examining the past one can arrive at certain foresights that can help in the effort to govern.

I said it was possible to see a little way ahead in the fog. Not much, but enough not to go aground on every shoal that lies in wait. I’ll give you an example of someone we know well, and for whom we both have a great fondness—and that is David Stockman, who has just written his book The Triumph of Politics , about what he calls the failure of the Reagan Revolution. Stockman describes how, as a very young man, filled with ideological zeal, he got hold of the fiscal policy of the United States government and set about to trigger a great crisis by creating a huge federal deficit that would then force us to dismantle this terrible welfare state that had emerged in the United States. He got halfway through his revolution—encouraging the deficit—but the second half didn’t work. Congress, the President, and the cabinet didn’t dismantle the welfare state as Stockman said they were supposed to.

There wasn’t that much to dismantle?

Well, there is a lot to dismantle—but it’s there because we want it. And so the next thing you know, we doubled the national debt and suddenly found ourselves a world debtor nation. Stockman now says this was the most irresponsible behavior by government in this century. And I say that a little more understanding of history would have made him a little more cautious about one thing: concealing his purpose, which he did, and secondly, for assuming there were an awful lot of arrangements in a democracy that the people in the democracy actually don’t want and would welcome an opportunity to unload. History teaches otherwise. By the time he realized this, it was too late.

Do you think that most people in government have a good sense of history?

We are not a people with a very strong sense of history. Oscar Wilde said that America’s youth was its oldest tradition. And it continues that way. I remember in 1959 when the New York State Democratic party was in a parlous condition. We were out of office in City Hall in New York City and in the governor’s mansion in Albany and in the White House—so far as I know, the first time ever in all three. Now how far back does the Democratic party go? I wondered. And I started looking at the books a little bit and found myself saying that you could argue that the Democratic party goes back to the 179Os, when Jefferson came up north and went on a botany expedition along the Hudson with Aaron Burr. At the very least it goes back to the 183Os when Van Buren set up a formal organized party. That makes us the oldest political party in the history of the world. But Americans don’t think that way. If you were to ask Democrats or Republicans, “Where are the party records from ten years ago?” nobody would know.

What do we lose or gain by not having a keener sense of our history?

Well, there is a certain freshness of experience and a willingness to experiment in American life that goes with having been “born yesterday.” And we have not inherited many great hatreds of the kind that tear apart other places in the world. I was in Ireland about four years ago, when your brother was having his spring term at Trinity College in Dublin. 1 went up to Belfast and, in a Protestant slum there, I saw painted on a red-brick wall, in black letters, a great slogan: “Remember 1689!” It was the date of the Siege of Londonderry. Some half-educated slum dweller with a long memory. We don’t have that. Good.

On the other hand, at noontime today I walked down toward the Capitol and went over to my rooms in the Russell Office Building, just to clean up the desk. I got down there and 1 was thinking about something very worrisome to me, which is that we have decided to put a fence around the Capitol. The idea of terrorism has us a little terrorized. On weekends such as this we block the roadways into the Capitol grounds with garbage trucks. About three years ago I was driving down East Capitol early in the morning and 1 learned that during the night a bomb had gone off in the Capitol. I thought, Let’s stop and look! I went in and 1 saw that indeed a bomb had been set off in the anteroom of the Senate Chamber, opposite the Republican cloakroom. If it had gone off when we were sitting in late session, which we had been during the previous weeks, perhaps ten Republican senators would have been killed, and a lot of aides. As I left, I went out and went down the stairs, and a group of journalists across the way asked me to describe the damage, which they had not seen, as the building was still closed by the police while it was being searched. In talking to them I said, “You can bomb the building but you cannot bomb the Democracy.”

So what does the fence around the Capitol signify, or symbolize?

I worry about the idea that we’re going to let the terrorist movements frighten us to the point where we retreat. And I think of the Spartans, who never built a wall around their city. Their men were their wall. When you start building walls, you keep people out but you also keep yourself in. If we build a fence, if we build a cage, we’ll be the ones inside it. And the fact is that the openness of the Capitol is part of the openness of our political system. The point is that we ought to know our strengths.

Back in the seventies you wrote, “Ours was perhaps the first society to expect the future to be better than the past.” Elsewhere in the same piece, you wrote: “The idea of a society confidently directed to even higher levels of social justice and equality has been shaken by the obstinacy of things. We have aged. It is not to be wondered then that the resistance to challenge is less spirited than it might be.” Yet you still believe that we have the right to be optimistic about our future. What has aged us? And why do we still have the right to be optimistic?

America has not inherited many of the great hatreds that tear apart other places in the world.

That article was written in the 1960s, in a time of great economic vitality. We have seen a long pause in that vitality —which worries me. Under Kennedy, I was made Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy Planning and Research, which was a new position. Among my administrative duties—which were very light, I assure you—I had charge of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that very old, very good government agency. It counts things: measures employment, unemployment, wages, productivity. The Commissioner of Labor Statistics was retiring and a number of deputy commissioners came to me to say they would like to be considered for the job. One of them was a very fine man who was responsible for our productivity statistics. I hope I was polite, but the simple fact was that it seemed to me that if all he did was measure productivity, he wasn’t doing anything very interesting—because it kept going up, that’s all.

About that time I had to change my mind in just a little way. A group of American sociologists went to Russia —one of the first such visits ever—and Talcott Parsons, a great scholar, a great American, a professor of sociology at Harvard, wrote a little account of the visit. It was a very disappointed account. He said, in effect: “You know, we went over there, and we wanted to talk about theories of social organization. All that our counterparts wanted to talk about was productivity—how do you get it out of people. Well, you know, for us, productivity is like sunshine—we just have it, that’s all. It’s just there.” And so I shouldn’t have brushed off my colleague who was measuring it. In the past ten years or so, we haven’t had any real increase in productivity in this country. Suddenly it’s beginning to look as if we could be in the same fix that Britain got into somewhere between 1870 and 1914. They continued to have real increases in their standard of living. But their productivity fell behind that of Germany and it stayed there. Those productivity numbers don’t look like much: decimal points. But, boy, you go through twenty or thirty years of decimal-point declines and suddenly you look up, and Britain is one of the poorer countries of Europe and Italy is one of the wealthier. The United States is in that pattern now—our productivity growth rate peaked in 1973 with OPEC oil prices. It has not recovered. It may be coming back a little bit but it is still down. The economic report from the President that we got last February shows that median family income in the United States has not risen in fifteen years. In the history of European settlement in North America there can never have been a fifteen-year period in which there was no increase in median family income.

What does that mean?

Well, it means among other things that there’s a lot less social space. You don’t expect things to be better. You know—if I’m doing well, you ought to be doing well, and if you’re not, I’ll give you a hand. But now I’m not doing very well. One was able to foresee this by the size of the Baby Boom—you could see that it was going to be a conservative generation because it was going to find itself competing with itself for opportunities that were scarcer than they had been previously. The economy is another matter. These are trends of the last fifteen years. There has been a slowing down in the economy of America and Europe —but not in Asia. You can just feel it in the halls of Congress, where the disposition to help other people is nothing like it was, when you could assume that things were going to be better. I don’t think I’d ever assume that again.

In your 1967 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Oration, you suggested that the phenomenon of radical protest among Americans, unique at the time, was the “first heresy of liberalism.” Do you see any comparisons with the rise of the “radical right,” as you call it?

No, but I think those student movements of the time were, in fact, heresies— people rejecting an ordered form that they had inherited—and the movements and their view of life eventually disappeared.

Many believe that the emergence of the radical right was a reaction to those movements.

Oh, the reaction to it was inevitable and it has come and it hasn’t yet gone away. I think the present cultural conservatism so evident around the country is a reaction to those years of liberal heresy. The radical left weakened the society and made it less capable of resisting certain kinds of counter-overreactions.

Of which you feel the zealous conservatism we are seeing now is a part?

Well, conservatism is a word that is very easily misused. The radical right is not conservatism at all. And some of it is very destructive. David Stockman is a very important figure in that he went from the left-wing ideology of that period into the right-wing ideology of this period and he seems to have gotten it all out of his system but not before he did an awful lot of damage to the structure of the fiscal policy in this country. We will be living with a protracted crisis of government for the rest of this century. You know—within five years’ time we became a net debtor nation. And they talk about Brazil and Argentina!

That must be a “first” in our history.

Oh, no. We were a debtor nation from the day the first Europeans arrived here. We brought in capital of all kinds in the nineteenth century to build things like railroads. Bismarck, North Dakota, was so named in the hopes of attracting German capital. But then the Europeans had to liquidate their holdings in the first years of World War 1, and we became a net capital exporter. Now we are again a capital importer. But this time we are not importing capital to build things: we are importing capital to pay our bills —which is not a very good way. We’re going to leave the younger generation paying the bills we have run up in the last five years, and they are going to be paying for the rest of their lives.

What in your opinion are our strengths and weaknesses?

Our strengths are our extraordinary resilience and a viable system of popular government—a true capacity for governance. Our weaknesses are increasingly economic. When I was a counselor to the President, Nixon would often say that nothing could do any harm to the economy of the United States. He said: “Hit it on the head with an ax and it wouldn’t do anything to it. But in foreign policy —you could destroy the United States in an afternoon.” Well, it has turned out that that may not be so—that our foreign policy may be much more basically secure but the economy is where we may be vulnerable. That is a big change in twenty years.

The greatest challenge to government, the elemental challenge, is to control the use of force.

The one elemental expectation is that the economy will always be strong enough to get us through any internal, and for that matter, any external problem that we are willing to face up to. The great civil rights movements back in the sixties, and then the war on poverty, all that just seemed a matter of political will—if you decided to do it, it would happen. I don’t think that is the case any more. I gave the Godkin Lectures at Harvard in the spring of 1985 and made the simple proposition, which is an extraordinary one, that the United States was the first nation—the first society in history—in which the poorest people, the poorest group in the population, were children. We have achieved the miracle of eliminating hopeless poverty among the aged—for all practical purposes—with Social Security retirement benefits, supplemented by Medicare. But if you are a child under six, you are seven times more likely to be poor than if you are a person over sixty-five.

Has this ever happened before in a modern industrial democracy?

Never. One-third of the children born in 1980 can expect to be on welfare before they are eighteen. That’s not to say they are going to be on welfare all their childhood, but at some point in their childhood. Well, that is extraordinary, and absolutely unpredicted. And nobody knows how to deal with it.

What do you think are the limits to government and the limits to social policy?

Well, the limits to social policy basically come down to the fact that governments have a very small capacity to change behavior. And our problems are more and more associated with the way people behave. They drop out of school; they take drugs; they get themselves into trouble of one kind or another. The consequences have caused whole sections of cities to collapse. Depending on the government to change this isn’t enough. If you don’t have a strong, sensible movement to emphasize character, early schooling, personal formation—if you ever give up on those things (and in the 1960s we were telling ourselves we could) then you end up in the 1980s with a lot of people in awful shape.

And at the same time, remember, a lot of these things have to do with the impact of technology on society. Both alcohol and drugs are phenomena of the nineteenth century. Morphine, which is opium, raised to a higher level of intensity, was developed in Germany in the 182Os, about the same time as the hypodermic needle. With the combination of the hypodermic needle and morphine, used very extensively in the Civil War, morphine addiction became known as the “soldier’s disease.” It had a certain cachet. Doctors would prescribe it for mothers in childbirth and they would become addicted. Well, there was no way to do that before the hypodermic needle and morphine came along. The same thing with the intense drinking of whiskey and other distilled liquors, like gin. Distillation was invented in Renaissance Italy: brandy made from wine. The Celts always seem to have known how to distill alcohol, but they didn’t have any surplus of grain with which to do so. You know, you could get yourself blind drunk once a year maybe but you couldn’t do it every night, because there wasn’t enough alcohol around. Well, the nineteenth century produced all that surplus of grain, and the next thing you know, you have rye whiskey and corn whiskey and so forth and people were dealing with a phenomenon new to the species. It took us some time to adjust to the new technology and to learn that people should not drink whiskey for breakfast.

But now you’ve got kids who smoke marijuana for breakfast.

I think it will take a couple of generations to learn not to abuse drugs. Not to use them at all.

What would you say are the challenges to government that have always existed?

The greatest challenge to government, the elemental challenge to government, is to control the use of force. The first principle of government is that it represents a monopoly on the use of force. Under a legal system, only government can be permitted to be violent. And it usually does work out that way. The next great challenge is to see that the monopoly of force is not misused. To wit: Don’t get yourself into wars that destroy us. You know, our great challenge is to learn how not to use nuclear weapons. Meanwhile you must be alert every day of your life to the possibility that your adversaries may misuse their power.

Can we learn anything from the study of history that would help us?

Well, the study of history does not tell us much about controlling arms. There used to be great expectations that you could do things like this—by treaty—as with the naval treaties of the 1920s, but all they accomplished was to inhibit the people who wanted to be inhibited. As long as there are nations that want to be aggressors, they will find ways around arms control—as Germany and Japan did—while the satisfied nations, as they are called—Britain, United States, France—liked the world arrangements the way they were and didn’t expand their arsenal illegally. They abided by the treaty and expected the others to do the same.

So we should learn to be cautious.

Maybe we have learned to be more cautious than is perhaps good for either the Soviets or us. There was a possibility that we might get an agreement on arms control on President Reagan’s watch, as they say in the Navy. He brought the Soviets back to the bargaining table with his Space Defense Initiative. He did this by announcing something we were doing anyway and saying we’re going to keep on doing it. We’re going to do the research, no matter what. It was possible that if he then agreed to pull back on that, and if the Soviets could agree to take down their heavy SS-18 missiles —those big city-busters—and if we had both gone to single-warhead, mobile, land-based missiles, and submarine missiles, by the end of the century we would all be deployed in a deterrent mode. We wouldn’t be on a hair trigger, we wouldn’t be on a launch on warning, we wouldn’t be in a situation where either party could seriously talk about a first strike that would wipe out the arsenal of its adversary. I think that opportunity is slipping away rapidly now. On the other hand, something different and new has arisen as we are speaking. We have just gone through a series of extraordinary events—the Challenger blew up, NASA is in trouble, the Soviets’ nuclear plant blew up. Two of our rockets that were going to get satellites into space have blown up. I would think that is going to make people more conscious of the dangers of nuclear weapons, nuclear technology, and the frailty of the expectations that it will all work out somehow.

Well, Dad, you said in your 1984 Commencement Address at New York University that “we should wait the Russians out.” I thought that was a very interesting idea.

What I have said was something that I have felt for a long time—that Marxism is a failed idea, it’s a defunct idea. Nobody believes it. It’s not true. It doesn’t predict events, economic or otherwise. The Leninist state is a failed state. It doesn’t work very well—they can’t feed themselves. And now that we are entering into what we call an information-rich society, one asks, “How are they going to have home computers in a society that doesn’t dare have telephone directories?” My view of the Soviet Union is that our great problem is how to manage its decline. They may want to have one last throw of the dice.

Does the Marxist interpretation of history still have any currency in American academic life?

Oh, probably. There are probably more Marxists in American universities than there are in Russian universities. It’s a nineteenth-century idea that just isn’t so. The Leninist state has great durability, but—

But it commands fear and not loyalty?

I don’t want to exaggerate, but as we said at the beginning of this interview, at the turn of the century everyone expected democracy to be the prevalent form of government. Well, in 1950, an awful lot of people in the world, like the intellectuals in France, assumed that Marxism would be the future. Nobody thinks that now.

Finally, Dad, do you believe that there are patterns in history, or certain principles or laws to which history conforms?

No, but there is so much to be acquired in the way of judgment by simply knowing about the experience of the past. If you observe the patterns of human behavior and learn certain kinds of prudence, you can justify a kind of elemental optimism. I came of age in a hugely confident, successful American society. As I’ve grown older I am somewhat less confident and see fewer prospects. Yet the most important thing is that in all those years all the really awful things that could have happened didn’t. That’s something to keep in mind.

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