What would today’s Democratic Party, with its progressive and moderate divisions, make of Daniel Patrick Moynihan? Maybe more to the point: What would he make of the state of our politics today?
These are some of the questions raised by “Moynihan,” a new documentary about the long and varied career of the titular senator, diplomat, presidential advisor and academic by co-directors, producers and writers Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich premiering October 3 at New York’s Film Forum. In life, Moynihan was branded many things, from a liberal Democrat to a pioneering Neocon, and, maybe most famously, a racist.
The film begins with this last label. Entering the Kennedy administration as a young Social Policy professor at Syracuse University, Moynihan worked with the Department of Labor and, following Kennedy’s death, was a linchpin for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. As his widow, Elizabeth Moynihan, says in the film “the War on Poverty was planned over spaghetti dinner at the Moynihans.”
While studying poverty and exam scores for the military in 1965, Moynihan discovered a statistical outlier which pointed to an epidemic of black, single parent families which became the basis for “Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” his infamous study that used history, data and bombastic language to grab the attention of President Johnson. When the private report leaked, amid the Watts riots in 1968, Moynihan found himself in the crosshairs of a fierce public debate.
The film rallies a number of black defenders of Moynihan’s study, including writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Both Norton and Coates believe Moynihan was the victim of a raw political moment when the study was released to the public and taken out of context by both black activists and his fellow Democrats.
For Moynihan, whose arc from the Kennedy to Clinton administrations bent towards helping the disenfranchised, the study of urban, single-family homes was a personal one. He grew up in the Depression without his father, mainly in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem. His experience of New Deal programs established him as a lifelong advocate of government assistance, an agenda he pushed through even under two Republican presidents, Nixon and Ford; he spearheaded the Family Assistance Plan, which was designed to lift the stigma of the welfare system by making it available to poor people regardless of their employment status. The plan failed to pass, but it is the model for the system now in effect.
The filmmakers settled on Moynihan as a subject after Freilich made her documentary “Inventing Our Life” about Israel’s kibbutzim and Dorman made “Arguing The World” about New York political intellectuals (many of the people interviewed for the film were Moynihan’s chums) and “Colliding Dreams” about the history of Zionism. In the polymath Moynihan they have found a gateway figure to some key moments of the 20th Century. Moynihan’s daughter, Maura, is billed as a special consultant on the film.
Following the effervescent, restless Moynihan in the film feels like running a marathon and the talking heads rallied for the project, numbering senators, congresspeople and political analysts, seem in awe of his achievements. For decades Moynihan was a telegenic presence on “Meet the Press” and “The Dick Cavett Show” and the film is rich with archival footage. There’s so much great testimony and video of Moynihan speaking for himself here, that it feels like a bit of a narrative cheat every time stentorian narration provided by actor Jeffrey Wright cuts in to give us further context.
A centerpiece of the documentary footage is Moynihan’s fierce defense of Israel as the United States Ambassador to the UN.
Moynihan is seen at the lectern of the United Nations, forelock flapping as he denounces a resolution by Somalia that likened Zionism to racism. “The abomination of anti-Semitism has been given a pretense of international sanction,” Moynihan declaims. “The United States of America declares that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”
Henry Kissinger, interviewed for the film and a handy foil to Moynihan’s brand of confrontational diplomacy, disagreed with the approach. “I thought that the way to deal with [the resolution] was to kill it through UN procedures…. He thought that this was a moral issue that he wanted to fight to a conclusion.” It’s telling that Kissinger, a Jew who fled Nazi Germany as a child, let his realpolitik get in the way of this sharp rebuke. It took a man of Irish stock to stand up for the Jewish State.
“Moynihan” feels like a hagiography, striving to contextualize Moynihan’s most objectionable moves. Aside from Kissinger, the closest the film gets to condemning its subject’s showboat style, and occasionally less-than-well-considered use of language is in reference to a memo from his time in the Nixon White House. In the memo, written amidst the rise of militant branches of the Black Power movement, Moynihan suggested the government regard African American communities with “benign neglect.”
“I don’t find that memo to be problematic,” Coates says, “I think what he wanted was a cooling down of the rhetoric.” Coates goes on to say the more troubling aspect of the memo was what he believes was a suggestion by Moynihan that “middle class African Americans were using the black poor to extort things from White America.”
One can easily miss this quiet dissent though, particularly when contrasted with a more comical instance of opposition: A Yippie throws a pie in Moynihan’s face during his successful Senate campaign in 1976. The Yippie walked away after calling Moynihan a “fascist pig.” This was the view of many of the Yippie generation, who saw Moynihan’s collaboration with a Republican White House and his vocal distress at the culture of campus protests, as a betrayal of the liberal cause. But Moynihan, for all his cachet in popular culture, was a relic of an earlier form of governing, fueled by the Great Depression and built on a foundation of bipartisan efforts to improve American lives.
As his former Senate staffer, Mike McMurry, remembers, Moynihan got a kick out of the differing views of his politics, even making a shrine to his dual reputation in his private bathroom in the Senate.
“On the wall framed there were two side-by-side magazine covers. One was The New Republic ‘Moynihan: Hope of the Neoliberal.’ And the other [from the Nation] was ‘Moynihan: Savior for the Neoconservatives.”
The film makes the case that Moynihan was, in the end, a man who did what he thought was right, heedless of the political headwinds and partisan pushes — the kind of politician we need right now, but also one that was outspoken to a fault.
In a TV interview from his time as the UN Ambassador, an interviewer tells Moynihan, “critics of yours say that you’re too public and they suspect you of going more for impact than persuasion. More for drama than diplomacy.” Moynihan, a study in contrasts, dressed in checks and a bowtie like the Harvard academic he was, answers with the frankness of the poor New Yorker he used to be. Swallowing a sip of water, Moynihan responds: “Well, they may be right.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.