Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: There's a Story to be Written Here

Jan 01, 2001

In January, former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan arrived at the Woodrow Wilson Center, at the invitation of Center Director Lee H. Hamilton, to begin his post as a senior policy scholar. The Center is a suitable place for Moynihan to work, for his efforts have been instrumental in the founding, continued success, and growth of the Center.

In addition to his post at the Wilson Center, Moynihan is a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, both in its Washington program and, at times, he will lecture at the Syracuse campus. His teaching career has come full circle, as he had been teaching at the Maxwell School before coming to Washington back in 1961 to join the Kennedy Administration.

Upon arrival in Washington, Moynihan got involved in the plan to redevelop Pennsylvania Avenue, proposed by President Kennedy in 1962. Simultaneously, Moynihan recounted, Senator Harrison "Pete" Williams of New Jersey had proposed building a memorial to President Woodrow Wilson.

"This interested me not least because it was a possibility of doing something on Pennsylvania Avenue," Moynihan said, "but also my doctoral dissertation was principally about Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations, and the International Labor Organization and how we came to join [it]."

There was debate about what kind of memorial to build to honor Woodrow Wilson; one possibility was a monument or temple. The legislation proposed by Senator Williams that passed in 1968 instead created a living memorial to the former university president, professor and scholar, thus establishing the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

One of President Lyndon B. Johnson's final acts as president was to appoint outgoing Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Center's first chair of the Board of Trustees. The Center's charter, however, stipulated that only members of private life may be appointed to the Board of Trustees, and clearly Humphrey was a public figure when appointed to the post. To make matters more awkward for incoming President Richard Nixon, Humphrey had been Nixon's rival in the presidential election.

At the time, Moynihan had returned to Washington as assistant to the president for urban affairs, awkward for him being a democrat in a republican White House. Moynihan advised White House counsel to affirm Humphrey's appointment as chair of the Board because, although he was still a public figure when appointed, Humphrey was willing and capable and the right man for the job. It worked. Humphrey was confirmed as chair and, subsequently, Moynihan became vice-chair.

Another man whom Moynihan spoke of fondly is Harry McPherson, who had been counsel to President Johnson, and actively supported the Center and the redevelopment project over the years. Moynihan soon came to know Dillon Ripley, then secretary of the Smithsonian, a colleague and friend who thought that the Center could become part of the evolving Pennsylvania Avenue. Ripley donated part of the Smithsonian Castle as the Center's first home. Charles Blitzer, the Smithsonian's assistant secretary for history and art, would become the Center's first director.

Today, at the Center, Moynihan said, "Here I am, at the end of 40 years, sitting on Pennsylvania Avenue." He has undertaken as his first project to write a book on the 40-year-history of the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue. Moynihan accepted the offer from Princeton University Press to write this book because, he said, "there's a history to be written here."

The opportunity to build a grand plaza at Federal Triangle came in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan proposed an international trade and cultural center. At the time, Moynihan—in charge of public buildings in the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works—devised a lease-to-own plan to help the government pay for the building using the rents from organizations that would lease its offices. Previously, construction of public buildings required a large, one-time appropriation from Congress, but this new rental arrangement made construction of a new building possible.

The building would become the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, which now permanently houses the Wilson Center. Generously, the General Services Administration (GSA) gave the Wilson Center part of the building rent-free for 30 years.

In 1987, the Federal Triangle Development Act passed, which has become the site of the Reagan Building and was a huge feat in the redevelopment project. Moynihan had written to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that the bill had passed. She wrote a letter responding that "I think that the completed Pennsylvania Avenue will be a monument to your dedication. I hope that Americans realize that." The framed letter hangs on the wall of Moynihan's office at the Center, appropriately by the window that looks out across Pennsylvania Avenue. The letter Mrs. Onassis wrote concludes, "I will be forever grateful, dear Pat, for your message to me all along the way, for the spirit you brought to something that Jack cared about so deeply, and for this happy ending."

Daniel Patrick Moynihan held cabinet or sub-cabinet positions in the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford Administrations, served as U.S. Ambassador to India from 1973-1975 and as U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1975-1976 before embarking on a 24-year Senate career that included his serving as chairman of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works.