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Los Angeles Times Interview : Daniel Patrick Moynihan : The Politics of Quixotism: Once More Into the Windmill

April 15, 1990| Tom Redburn | Tom Redburn, a Washington economics correspondent for The Times, interviewed the senator in his Capitol Hill office

Washington — It used to be said that Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was more adept at quoting Bacon than bringing it home. No more. By unexpectedly proposing to cut Social Security taxes $55 billion a year, the New York Democrat ignited a political firestorm. His plan transformed the sterile debate in Washington over the federal budget.

Late last year, Moynihan rebelled against the policy of relying on the surplus in the Social Security fund to finance the continuing deficit in the government's other accounts. Moynihan was an architect of the 1983 Social Security rescue plan that created a reserve to cushion the cost to future generations. Yet he was outraged by the unfairness of the growing dependence on a tax that hit the middle class and poor much harder than the affluent.

Moynihan is no stranger to controversy. As early as 1965, the former Harvard professor was attacked by civil-rights leaders because he was the principal author of a Labor Department white paper that argued blacks suffered in American society largely because of the instability in poor black families caused by centuries of racial discrimination. Initially accused of "blaming the victim," Moynihan's conclusions have since been accepted by such important black leaders as Jesse Jackson.

A focus on improving family life to help alleviate poverty has been a constant theme in Moynihan's long and varied political career. Returning to Washington in 1969 as a domestic adviser to President Richard M. Nixon, he devised a far-reaching family assistance plan that was the heart of Nixon's welfare reform. But the income-support plan was defeated in Congress.

Rising from a broken family on the streets of Hell's Kitchen in New York, Moynihan is now one of the few genuine intellectuals in government, with an eloquence that speaks to all Americans.

"I don't think there's any point in being Irish," Moynihan once said, "if you don't know the world is going to break your heart eventually."

Question: Each time an Eastern European leader comes here, he seems to hark back to our Founding Fathers with a sense of being inspired. Why is that and why are our leaders today so rarely inspired by the Founding Fathers?

Answer: Let's go back to James Bryce's "The American Commonwealth," the most enormously important book in the world. He asked why are people so fascinated by American arrangements. Americans are what people want to know about. The answer is simple: Sooner or later they expect American arrangements to be theirs. That seemed very much the case toward the end of the 19th Century when Bryce wrote.

This was a general perception in the world, embodied never so much as in the role achieved by Woodrow Wilson in 1918 and 1919. No man had before and no man since has ever had the world's attention and respect as Wilson in those days.

It crashed so suddenly that we have forgotten. Two things happened: The age of totalitarianism appeared, with Lenin in 1917-1918, and in that same 1918-19 period Wilson collapsed and the Senate rejected the League of Nations, which was so much an extension of American ideals. We seemed to withdraw from the world order.

Then you had, for a solid 70 years, the age of totalitarianism, a form of government the world had never encountered. First in Soviet Russia, then in Nazi Germany and then the seeds were spreading. It was proclaimed to be the next stage in history. That was the essential claim of the Soviets--not that they had a better arrangement for producing borscht or whatever, but that they were the next stage in history.

Then all those pretensions and expections--which were real--just collapsed.

Q: As far back as 1986, you wrote that the ideal of communism had collapsed.

A: Yes. It took a long while for the word to get to Washington but it did. And when it was over, what the world is left with at the end of the century are those ideas which had been so widespread at the beginning.

So when a Vaclav Havel (president of Czechoslovakia) comes here, it's not surprising. The Republic of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed in Pittsburgh. We went charging around trying to see if we couldn't get the Library of Congress to turn over the draft constitution of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, but we would have to get a law passed or something. By the time we thought of it, there wasn't time and Havel said: "Oh, leave it here. You'll take better care of it than we will anyway."

Q: But if our ideals have triumphed in the world, why are we so dispirited?

A: I don't know if that really is the word.

Q: What word would you use?

A: A little bit exhausted. The '80s were pretty intense with respect to world conflict. But also more normal than you might think. Most of the world would think itself blessed with a government that was not incessantly messianic, proclaiming a purposeful efficiency in all things, setting great goals and demanding ever greater exertions. That is what the world has had all too much of.

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