Skip To Content

D.P. Moynihan as ‘American Cincinnatus’

Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote of the classic Greek dichotomy between the fox and the hedgehog. The fox knows a lot about many things, but the hedgehog knows everything about one big thing.

In his own way Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the foxiest hedgehog in American life. He was blessed with the fox’s interest in many, many things, and the hedgehog’s capacity to learn almost everything about whatever he might be interested in.

If history is shaped by scholars and thinkers on one hand, and statesmen and public thinkers on the other hand, Pat Moynihan was that rarest of thinkers who was also a doer, that exceptional giant who not only searched for solutions but had the opportunity and legislative skills to implement his solutions. Our Democratic colleague Bob Kerrey of Nebraska said it best when he declared once that Pat Moynihan had “built a bridge between academia and policy that enabled him to both see and shape history.”

Cincinnatus left the Roman Senate to return to his farm where he was reinvigorated and refreshed. Pat Moynihan left the Senate every August for a 19th-century schoolhouse at Pindar’s Corners in Delaware County, N.Y., where he would write in three weeks a book that scholars and policymakers would cite for the next three decades.

But Pat Moynihan was much more than a polymath who knew more about social policy, foreign affairs, architecture, mass and surface transportation, and diplomatic history than any member of Congress. He was blessed with what his Irish forebears taught was the leprechaun’s gift of being able to “see around corners.” He not only had an uncanny capacity to analyze and make sense out of complex public issues, he also had the rare capacity to both suggest solutions to the problems he had quantified and to then calmly tell us what future problems would emerge in a generation or two, from each of the solutions he had proffered.

Where others saw an immutable ever-stronger “Evil Empire,” he saw the death-thrashings of a doomed Soviet Union, collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

Where others saw random thuggery at the United Nations, he saw a calculated plan to discredit democracy and almost single-handedly rallied support for the State of Israel, which he unforgettably declared to be a “metaphor for democracy.”

Where others saw hopeless partisan differences dooming Social Security by the end of this century, he helped craft the bipartisan compromise that gives us the luxury of arguing about what to do to avert disaster sometime in the middle of the next century.

Where others saw peculiar behavior, he saw “defining deviancy down.”

Where others saw tangled families, he saw the exacting price on a generation hence of a growing social pathology.

I, like so many other Americans, was first exposed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s rare ability to make others rethink prior assumptions when I read his first book, “Beyond the Melting Pot.”

Three generations of scholars and political leaders had assured us that “ethnic identity” was a mere holdover from the age of immigration which would swiftly disappear as we all became unhyphenated “Americans.” Nathan Glazer and Pat Moynihan demolished this argument forever, declaring that:

“There is no single American identity. On the contrary, it is only in totalitarian regimes that we find an official identity that all people must conform to. America was never merely a ‘melting pot.’ It was, and is, a tapestry of many colors, beliefs and cultures, in which no group should ever feel it has to submerge or ignore its individuality and heritage. A robust and vibrant America requires the full contribution of our many ethnic, racial and religious groups.”

Few predictions about American society have ever proven to be as prophetic, or as revolutionary. The myth of the “melting pot” has been firmly discredited by the vibrant multicultural America that Pat Moynihan spoke of over 40 years ago. Today our society increasingly recognizes that Americans should never, to use Pat’s poignant phrase, have to choose “between their conscience and their career.”

Pat Moynihan was just as insightful — and just as dedicated to the ideals of liberty and freedom — when he examined the world beyond our country’s borders.

In 1979, I accompanied Pat to my first Solidarity Sunday For Soviet Jewry. He introduced me to a marvelous statement from then-governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey who electrified a December 6, 1911, rally for Russian Jewry in the Old Carnegie Hall by declaring: “This is not a Jewish cause, it is America’s. It is the cause of all who love justice.”

When Pat Moynihan rallied the Congress on behalf of Soviet Jews, it was because he saw the cause of human liberty as a seamless aspect of American foreign policy — as important in Tibet or Iran as it was to Woodrow Wilson in Czarist Russia.

When Pat Moynihan devoted 16 often lonely years to securing the repeal of the infamous United Nations General Assembly resolution defaming Zionism as racist, it was because he understood that the enemies of Wilson’s vision of a democratic world were seeking to discredit all democracies by delegitimizing the sovereign State of Israel.

When he presented his vision of a vigorous American role in the world, it was because he believed that wise foreign policy owes more to lasting principles of justice and the strictures of international law than it does to the results of the latest focus group poll.

When he took the floor of the Senate in September 1983 to declare that Israel had the right to designate the capital city of her choice, he was declaring a simple truth which he helped transform into the law of the land.

When he told us that democracies are entitled to make their own mistakes, he was warning us of the self-fulfilling folly of interfering in their domestic political affairs.

For more than two decades I learned much from Pat Moynihan. I only hope that in the years to come this country will continue to draw on his wisdom and vision. He may have passed on, but his legacy will live on in the world of ideas and public service.

We will miss his clarity of vision.

We will miss his courage to tell us what we need to know, not just what we want to hear.

We will miss his ability to “look around corners.”

We will miss his rare capacity to speak “truth to power,” proving as he did, time after time, that “truth is power.”

Bill Bradley ran for president in 2000 and served three terms as a senator from New Jersey. This article was adapted from a speech delivered in 1999 at a dinner sponsored by the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.