“MOYNIHAN”— A Man of Ideas And Deeds


A Man of Ideas and Deeds

Amos Lassen

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) did not just live in the twentieth century, he spanned it as a colossus of ideas and a man of deeds. He was an influential intellectual and sociologist, policy specialist, ambassador and long-serving senator. In an age of rigid ideologies,  Moynihan was a man who embraced the contradictions and complexity of public policy who never despaired of the role of government in the lives of its citizens. Now, fifteen years after his death, as the nation falls deeper into hyper-partisanship and politics has become dominated by social media, the first feature length documentary about his life captures Moynihan as never before.

He was a New Deal Democrat, but he was also one of the Ford Administration’s best appointees when we look at him from a conservative perspective. As America’s UN Ambassador, his plain-spoken defense of the American democracy and our shared values shook Turtle Bay, especially his withering rebuke of the notorious resolution equating Zionism with racism. Directors Joseph Dorman and  Toby Perl Freilich show us the political career and scholarship of the longtime New York senator.

Moynihan was smart, flamboyant, and capable of working with the other party. His first major government job came under Johnson, helping shape the initial conception of the “War on Poverty.” Much to people’s surprise, especially his wife’s, Moynihan also served as Nixon’s domestic policy advisor (and later ambassador to India).

Dornan and Freilich’s many interview subjects make it pretty clear the administrations changed, but Moynihan and his commitment to fight poverty never wavered. His passionate term at the United Nations made Moynihan a folk hero. I found it refreshing and invigorating to watch this film at a time of such partisan polarization, because a healthy percentage of the talking heads are politicians and commentators associated with the conservative movement (or at least they were in the pre-Trump era), including Norman Podhoretz, George Will, Michael Barone, Trent Lott, and Suzanne Garment. It is fitting, because much of Moynihan’s work, particularly his influential and maligned “Moynihan Report” on persistent unemployment in the African American community, often cut both ways.


The documentary also reminds us of a time when the less extreme candidate could still win a party primary, although in the case of Moynihan’s “whopping one-percent” victory over New Left firebrand Bella Abzug was quite close.

The filmmakers and their interview subjects spend a good deal of time on Moynihan’s dry wit and his way with words and definitely take a great deal of time and effort to codify Moynihan’s standing as a liberal, which he was. It is too bad that they did not spend more time on his UN tenure, because it had a unifying effect on American society and across party and ideological lines. This is a thoughtful look at a man whose belief that “if you have contempt for government, you will get contemptible government’ sounds especially valid today.”

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