New Book Discussion: Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary
Author: Steve Weisman, Editorial Director and Public Policy Fellow,
The Peterson Institute; Commentators: Polly Trottenberg, Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy; Todd Purdum, Editor, Vanity Fair; Sidney Blumenthal, Journalist and Author
"There would be no Woodrow Wilson Center today if it weren't for Daniel Patrick Moynihan," according Michael Van Dusen, vice president of the Wilson Center. Senator Moynihan was a lifelong writer, historian, professor, politician, and he played an active role in the formation of the Wilson Center as it is today. It was a fitting venue then, for a discussion of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, a collection of Moynihan's personal letters edited by Steve Weisman.
Weisman introduced his book by commenting that Senator Moynihan never had to write an autobiography because he lived his life out loud. Moynihan's lifelong dedication to public service and the respect he enjoyed in political as well as intellectual circles provide more than enough evidence to support that claim, though it did not stop him from recording his thoughts at every opportunity, resulting in over three thousand boxes of letters and correspondence preserved at the Library of Congress.
The compilation provides compelling insights into a man who lived a very public life, revealing a person who was, according to Weisman, "more vulnerable, self-absorbed, emotional, and profoundly affected by the instability of his family during his childhood" than was apparent to the public. Weisman and others believe that Moynihan used letters to process his thinking, and given the amount of writing that has been saved, it seems that the senator from New York thought about everything. In addition to heartfelt and poignant letters, he had a penchant for comedic outbreaks, many of which were relived throughout the discussion.
Sidney Blumenthal, editor of the online magazine Salon.com, provided his own insights and reminiscences of Senator Moynihan, shedding light on how Moynihan's ideas drove him to take difficult political positions and were sometimes misrepresented in the public. As both an intellectual and a politician, he was forced to contend with the bureaucratic and political obstacles that stood in the way of the creative solutions he proposed. Though he served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, he was "a liberal Democrat to the core." Blumenthal mused that had Moynihan proposed the same policies to the Obama administration that he had in the past, he would have certified the allegations of socialism.
Moynihan, however, never wanted to put a political label on his political philosophy, noted Todd Purdum, editor of Vanity Fair. Rather, he consciously avoided ideology. An avid historian, Moynihan knew that there was always some new way to divide the public into "us" and "them," and he worried little about what misconceptions people might have of him. When asked if he was concerned about being misunderstood, he shrugged. "Why worry about being misunderstood? I'm still here."
Moynihan was first and foremost a teacher, and the title of "professor" followed him well beyond his career at Harvard University. Polly Trottenberg, Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy and a former legislative assistant to Senator Moynihan agreed, noting Moynihan's role in her career development and one particular instance where he pushed aside the political matters at hand and proceeded to engage her in unrelated conversation. Trottenberg's account of her relationship with Moynihan, like that of many others, includes many of his eccentricities as well as his kindnesses.
Supplemented by anecdotes from the audience, which included many people who had known the senator throughout his long and storied career, the evening sounded much like the letters that make up Weisman's book, What emerged was a portrait of a thinker, politician, historian, family man, and poet – an American Visionary.
By Lauren Demeter
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies