He was a New Deal Democrat, but he was also one of the Ford Administration’s best appointees, from a conservative perspective. As America’s UN Ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s plain-spoken defense of the American democracy and our shared values rattled Turtle Bay, especially his withering rebuke of the notorious resolution equating Zionism with racism. The political career and scholarship of the “neoliberal” Nixon advisor and longtime New York senator are chronicled in Joseph Dorman & Toby Perl Freilich’s Moynihan (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.
We can’t have politicians like Moynihan anymore, because he was smart, flamboyant, and capable of working with the other party. His first major government stint 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 & Freilich’s many interview subjects make it pretty clear the administrations changed, but Moynihan and his commitment to fight poverty never wavered. However, his passionate term at the UN made Moynihan a folk hero at the time, even earning praise from then Governor Ronald Reagan.
It is rather refreshing to watch Moynihan at a time of such partisan polarization, because a healthy percentage 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.
Moynihan 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, it certainly was close. Yet, New York and the nation were incalculably better off with his representation.
Of course, the filmmakers and their interview subjects spend a good deal of time on Moynihan’s dry wit and his way with words. That also includes “benign neglect,” a turn of phrase that rather got away from him. That from-the-hip outspokenness could lead to misunderstanding, but it certainly made Moynihan an interesting figure on the national political stage. It is hard to find any politician on the scene today who us remotely unfiltered, except, rather awkwardly, Trump himself.