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Daniel Patrick Moynihan Interview


Daniel Patrick Moynihan is a Senator from New York from 1977 to 2001. He was a member of the Cabinet or sub-Cabinet of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. He was Ambassador to India from 1973 to 1975 and a U.S. Representative to the United Nations, 1975 to 1976. He is a former Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Wesleyan University. 

He is the author of The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (“The Moynihan Report”); Counting our Blessings; Family and Nation; On the Law of Nations; Secrecy: A Brief Account of the American Experience; Toward a National Urban Policy, and other works.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan


QUESTION: I wonder if we could begin with a short autobiography from you? Let's take it from birth to the end of your career in the U.S. Navy. 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: I had a childhood during the Depression years in New York City. I learned about Pearl Harbor from a man whose shoes I was shining, up on Central Park West, on a Sunday. 

QUESTION: I have read some of your biography. You grew up in what is now called a female-headed household. Is that correct? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Well, from about age nine; yeah. 

QUESTION: Was that particularly difficult for you? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Sure; difficult for any child. I think the later it comes, the easier it is. But among other things, you don't even have any money, which makes a difference. And, yeah, I was out shining shoes when I was, oh, twelve, thirteen years old. Or [I] worked four days a week on the piers and three days a week at City College. I have no complaints, but it was not the same world that you'd expect your grandchildren to live in. 

QUESTION: Right. And then you enlisted in the United States Navy, is that correct? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Yeah, at age seventeen and it was late. I never saw any action at sea. I was a gunnery officer on a sort of smallish vessel, [an] officer of the deck, as we say. But I am one of those people whose perspective on the twentieth century was very much infected by the realization that, if it hadn't been for the atom bomb, I would not be here. 

QUESTION: Right. And then you come out of the Navy in 1947? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Yeah. [And then] I got the GI Bill, so I went off to Tufts. And then I had a Fulbright and went off to the London School of Economics with a GI Bill alongside me. And something I realize [is] how different that experience is from those of most young people today. I got through four advanced degrees, went to universities, colleges, great places, [and] I never saw a tuition bill in my life. And I have young people come working for me as [interns]. And every so often I'd call one of them in and say: “I know you have been here for two years, and you are doing very well. Why don't you take a year off and just wander around Europe and see [how] that feels?” And they'll say: “Oh, golly, Senator, I couldn't do that. I still owe $30,000 in tuition.” I fear we're raising a generation of Republicans, when you think about it. 

QUESTION: Okay. And then you graduate from college, and you get into the political life. Why don’t you pick the story up there? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Well, I'm just two years shy of a half-century in New York politics. I came back from the London School and all that in early September 1953, went right to work in the campaign of Robert F. Wagner Jr. for mayor of New York City. That moved over into the next year's campaign of Averell Harriman to be governor. And both were successful. I then went up to Albany with Governor Harriman, as did my wife-to-be, Elizabeth Brennan. We were married there. [Then] I was involved with the Kennedy presidential campaign in 1960 and went down to Washington with Kennedy in 1961. I went into the Labor Department as an assistant to that great man Arthur Goldberg, later Justice Goldberg. 

QUESTION: What was your title at the Department of Labor? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: I had a new position, which was sort of being colonized, if you will, from the Department of State. I was Assistant Secretary for Policy Planning and Research. And everybody was getting into policy planning, and so did we. It was a wonderful job. I was in charge of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So I had some of the most brilliant mathematical statistical minds in the country, who would put together the modern technology, if you like, of understanding the economy and tracking it and trying to influence it. 

QUESTION: All right. Tell us now about “The Report on the Negro Family.” How does that come about? What are the circumstances of it? What does it say? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Let me go back just a bit, in terms of what has happened in this century. In 1946, we did, in fact, produce an unemployment rate. Didn't publish it; weren’t sure enough. But in that unemployment rate, black unemployment was well below white unemployment, because blacks were on farms, and on a farm you may have, you know, scarcely enough to live on, but you are employed. 

[But] then movement came north, and into cities, black unemployment became a problem. And I began to see how we could track the rise and fall of unemployment rates with other indices of social well being. Such as married woman/husband absent. And such as the newly rising number of persons who were getting Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a program that was begun under the Social Security Act of 1935. Which was supposed to have disappeared by now, because you’d have survivors’ insurance, and that will take of mother and children. But it wasn't disappearing; it was growing. Now, what's this all about? 

Well, I was – to make it short – I was able to show a striking correlation between the rise and fall of unemployment and the rise and fall of things like married woman/husband absent – a number of new welfare cases, as we would come to call them. When you have higher unemployment, you will get broken families. About a nine-month lag was the most powerful interval. 

And, oh my God! These correlations dazzled. I mean, the people in the Bureau of Labor Statistics were: “I am sorry. What are we finding here? My heaven, this is new! And you never find this strong a relationship!” Well, it was. 

Then, in the late 1950s, it began to weaken, and in 1963 that correlation had disappeared. Suddenly, the unemployment rate for minorities – as well as everybody else – was going down; and the dependency rate, if you want to put it that way, was going up. Now, what was this all about? What was this all about? 

QUESTION: “Dependency” rate in this situation meaning? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Well, welfare. 

QUESTION: Welfare. Okay, fine. 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: And the absolutely essential point to be made about the The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, [is that] a year earlier, I could have confidently told you and showed you that [if] you got unemployment down, this problem went down. Suddenly, unemployment is going down, and this problem's going up. The lines crossed. 

QUESTION: This is what James Q. Wilson calls “Moynihan's scissors,” is that right? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Yeah, he has called that the “scissors.” And it meant that we had something bigger and more complex than we knew, and it still is. 

QUESTION: You showed there – and that's the part that became so controversial – that the black out-of-wedlock birth rate had gone way up. Is that specifically what you had indicated? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: [Yes.] And we don't understand this yet. It’s a new social circumstance. And we won’t understand it until we can get less emotional about it and more analytic. It's a bigger problem than I could handle. I'll tell you this: I ran into it. I bumped into it. I wasn't looking for it, had no preconceived notions, and what, 35 years have gone by, and I'm no closer to understanding it. 

QUESTION: The Negro Family: The Case for National Action soon became known as the Moynihan Report, and still is. Can you describe the general reaction that got in the public press? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: In the summer of 1965, we had had some wonderful things in Washington as regards race by that time. In 1964 the great Civil Rights Act was passed. In 1965 the great Voting Rights Act was passed. 

Then, without any notice or warning or heads-up, the rioting broke out in Watts, in Los Angeles. And it was fierce. And nothing that intense had ever occurred in our modern time. And the reporters in the White House were saying to Bill Moyers, the press secretary, saying, “Mr. Moyers, Bill, what's going on? What happened? We thought we had all these things being taken care of, and now this? What's going on?” 

And he said, “Oh, you know, we know all about these things. Let me just show you.” And he handed out this report, saying, “Pat Moynihan did this for the President last June, and we're on to these things.” 

Next morning Bob Novak and Rowland Evans, in their wonderful column, their headline was “The Moynihan Report.” And it linked up, in effect, the behavior at Watts with [my report on illegitimacy ratios], as if [there was] somehow [a] causal relationship between [the two]. And people got very upset. I mean, it was rejected. And so that subject was put aside. In the popular press it was regarded as something that was anti-black or whatever. 

QUESTION: Yeah. And I assume your view is that it turned out to be prescient and correct? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: My view is we had stumbled onto a major social change in the circumstances of post-modern society. It was not long ago in this past century that an anthropologist working in London – a very famous man at the time, Malinowski – postulated what he called the first rule of anthropology: That in all known societies, all male children have an acknowledged male parent. That’s what we found out everywhere. It’s true in Glasgow; it’s true in Buenos Aires, it’s true in Hyderabad. 

And well, maybe it's not true anymore. Human societies change. 

It’s not beyond me. We're quieting down on these things. Some of the major black universities like Morehouse had a conference on the subject last year. And we will begin to acknowledge it. [And] President Clinton, in his final State of the Union address said, you know, “A third of our children live in single parent households.” How's that? 

QUESTION: So the high illegitimacy ratio that you saw in the black community in the early 1960s climbs enormously within the black community. But later it also climbs in the white community – to a point where it is higher than the so-called crisis that you originally pointed out. A few years go by, and it's not just out-of-wedlock births; it’s an increase in crime; it’s an increase in welfare. There's a lot of things going on. There's drug usage. And you write an essay called, “Defining Deviancy Down.” 


QUESTION: It seems to me that there’s a linkage there as well. Could you describe to me what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in your mind as you see this evolution? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: [Let me] give you a little background. This is sort of academic, but it’s the real world too. In the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as it was going through a long process, a little clause was put in saying there should be a survey of equality of educational opportunity. We had to demonstrate how separate schools were inherently unequal. And that was before things progressed such that the law outlawed dual school systems. But the little provision was still in there. 

And a friend of mine, James S. Coleman – a great sociologist – was asked to do this survey. And when he undertakes it, they said, “why are you doing this? Everybody knows these schools are unequal in their facilities and that’s why they're unequal in their outcomes.” He said, “Well, everybody knows it, but now we'll know it for once and all.” 

And I'll tell you, early one evening, there's a reception at the Harvard Faculty Club, and Seymour Martin Lipset – the incomparable Marty Lipset – walks in, sees me, comes over and says, “You know what Coleman's finding, don't you?” And I said, “No.” He said, “It's all family.” 

And, indeed what [Coleman] found [was that] the predictor of educational achievement was to be found in family setting, structure, and so forth. 

QUESTION: Not in schools? Not principally? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Not principally in schools. Now, and he was the sort of first major person in that difficult decade who found out things that he shouldn't have found out. Actually, there was an effort – not very serious, but an effort – to expel him from the American Sociological Association. 

QUESTION: For telling the truth? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Well, for finding out information that was unwelcome.

And up at Harvard, I organized a faculty seminar on the Coleman study. It was a huge study, just 400-page telephone books of correlation coefficients. And you had to get to page 44 in the introduction before you learned it. But by and large, the effects of school facilities is rather weak, you know? And Jim [Coleman] said, “Look, say anything you want, just publish the numbers, the data.” 

And we began. I got a little money from Carnegie, and we thought we'd have a good supper one night and get 12 people to come, and then maybe eight of us would sit around and tinker with this stuff through the year. Time came the following spring, and we had the whole of the second floor of the Harvard Faculty Club taken up with this seminar. When people – engineers and physicists and lawyers – said, “Is it true that you don't seem to understand education? Well, now, that's very interesting. We thought you had it all wrapped up. You really can't follow this? I see.” And, you know, real minds could deal with this, because they had no commitment to the standard wisdom on the subject: more teachers, more classrooms, and things like that. 

One of the founders of sociology, a Frenchman named Emile Durkheim, wrote a book about the turn of the century in which he said that crime was normal. He said that you have to have a certain amount of deviant behavior such that you can establish what is correct behavior and acceptable behavior. He said, you know, even in a monastery, there are going to be some rules that some people will break, so the others will be known as obedient and correct people. And there was a little suggestion in Durkheim, you can just sort of feel, that societies like ours are always raising the level of deviancy so they’d have enough to go around, saying, “Oh, your table manners aren't good enough, and that's very bad.” Well, it's not very good, but, you know, it's not that awful. 

It occurred to me that what we had been doing in the last 30 years was that, as we got too much deviant behavior, we began to define it down. 

The idea [behind “Defining Deviancy Down”] came to me in 1992, as Liz and I were leaving the New York City Democratic National Convention and driving to upstate. And we were up on the Henry Hudson Parkway, crossing the South Bronx. And my good wife was driving, and I had plenty of time to read the New York Times full [and] there on page B-14 was a story, not a big one, about seven people having been found shot dead in a Bronx apartment building. That was a notable event because the mother, before she was shot, managed to shove her infant child under a bed. And when finally people noticed, the police got in, they found the child and she was alive. And that was sort of interesting. The fact that seven people had been shot in the back of the head was not interesting at all. 

And I thought of that wonderful example of gangland violence, the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago, when Al Capone’s men rubbed out seven of Bugs Moran’s men. Well, it became the subject of national legend. We could no longer deal with the amount of murder going on in Manhattan and the Bronx, so we had to sort of say, well, only special murders get attention. And you can take this pattern of avoidance and defining deviancy down all across the society. 

QUESTION: What would some of the other examples be? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Well, out-of-wedlock births. Drug use of very serious kinds. Very poor performance in school. School violence. 

An interesting thing: Our party, my Democratic Party, became very much into this denial mode. 

In 1993, I was asked to come to speak to a breakfast group in New York called the Association for a Better New York – a very fine group, very widely based. And I thought I'd pursue this subject, which I had just published as an article in the American Scholar, which is the journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. And the [police commissioner, Ray Kelly,] had given a talk at a FBI conference, which I thought was just great. He described [a practice that] was getting to be common in Manhattan and other parts of the city. Where a car would be parked, and there would be a little sign on the dashboard that said, “No radio.” And the driver would leave that when he got out of the car. And Kelly said, “You know, that sign says, ‘Don't break into my car. Break into the car behind me.’ And that's not good enough.” 

Well, I thought: Boy, about time! And I compared the city I had grown up in, come of age in. You know, we had 82 murders, and they were mostly husband-and-wife and a few people in the waterfront. Welfare, [when] I went back 50 years, almost disappeared. The wartime economy picked up, and things like that. 

And well, my party, I fear, was scandalized. Many of them walked out of there. 

But then something happened, which I do think had probably not happened before. I would be bold enough to assert this. [My] essay [“Defining Deviancy Down”] on Emile Durkheim in the American Scholar became a central subject of a mayoralty campaign in New York City. By which I mean that Rudolph Giuliani picked it up and said, “Yeah, that’s what's going on, and I'm going to stop it.” And the rest is a certain amount of local history. 

QUESTION: All right. Now, so two things are going on that we’ve talked about. One is this incredible, unexpected economic growth and stability. I mean, people talk now of the new paradigm and the new economy. I look at that chart, and I say, “I know when the new economy and the new paradigm started. It's not in the year 1995 or 2000. It's in the year 1945 or 1948.” 


QUESTION: I mean, that's when this new paradigm started. Remarkable. Great. Wonderful. And everybody should live happily ever after. 

And then, in the 1960s, these social indicators that you talk about – out-of-wedlock birth, crime, welfare, drugs, that whole panoply – in fact, Dick Scammon and I, in a political sense, wrote a book called The Real Majority – and put a label on it all, called “the social issue.” And it was the political face of what you have been describing. And it was not good news. 

So now, you have these apparently contradictory, huge trends that a lot of people have written about. I mean, Frank Fukuyama's new book, basically, called The Great Disruption, for example, makes the case that both of those things happened; this great disruption on the social side happened, and starting in the late 1980s or the early 1990s, we have rebounded on the socials – not far enough – but crime is down, welfare is down. You and I could argue about out-of-wedlock births. But there's a lot of positive social indicators now in the last 10 years. 

So how do you put that all together? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: I think we may be stabilizing at a much higher level than we'd known before, and we're beginning to congratulate ourselves on circumstances that would have been thought horrendous two generations past. That's what I think. I could be wrong. 

We're going to have to get new modes of analyses. No one’s come near the subject in terms of asking, you know, “Why has this happened?” It's always been a subtext of our secular optimism that you solve the economic problem, and all other things sort of take care of themselves. Well, we seem to be doing well on the economic side – we are doing very well – and the other things are not solving, they're compounding. Maybe the heavens are telling us something! “Don't fly too close to the sun, when your wings drop off. There’s a lot of work the twenty-first century has before it. But, I mean, be of good spirits!” 

QUESTION: Has the interpretation of data in this country been politicized and ideologized? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Ben, you have read “The Federalist Papers.” There's one of the essays by Madison that says, you know: “If men were angels, you wouldn't need any government. But alas, they are not. So we'll make the best with what we have, which is human nature. And we'll try to give equal and opposing factions the opportunity to offset each other and make up for” – a wonderful line of Madison – he said, “to make up for the defect of better motives.” Now, sure there are people who will try to politicize economic data, other data, misuse it. But the data is there for others to come back and say, “You are getting that wrong.” 

QUESTION: There are some trends in the United States that are not only enormous, but pretty uniquely American. And as I have gone through this data, I think the most important trend perhaps, I think is immigration. And you have written on the topic. How do see it? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: In 1963, [Nathan] Glazer and I published a book, Beyond the Melting Pot, about the immigrant groups of New York City. 

We said that the point about the melting pot is that it didn’t quite happen. People remain a certain distinctiveness. 

That term, “the melting pot,” comes from a play of that title by a fellow named Israel Zangwill, who was a British playwright, and was [in] love [with] Staten Island. And there was a young man, a violinist, as I recall, and he was the son of a Russian autocratic general who carried out a pogrom. And there was this young girl, and she was a singer. And her parents had fled in the pogrom, but here they were in Staten Island, and love conquered. And Theodore Roosevelt was in the box, and said, “Bully, Mr. Zangwill! Bully!” 

We have in New York City today the same proportion of first and second generation Americans as we had in 1910. They’re from [different places, maybe,] Asia, for example, and Latin America. 

[But] there really is a sense in which the world is just getting back to the standards of liberty and free movements of people and goods that existed in 1914. We forget how free that earlier world was. It's lost to us. In 1914, there were two countries in the world that required you to have a passport if you wanted to enter – Czarist Russia and the Ottomans. Anywhere else, you could come and go as you pleased. You'd get a passport to show your credentials in a bank or something, but you didn't have to have one. Anybody who wanted to [could] come here, live here, be a citizen – no problem. 

Well, the First World War [came], and then we began closing borders. I guess we had immigration legislation during World War I, then 1924, [which] went on until the mid-60s, and we opened up a little bit. But in things like trade, trade was free around the world, ‘til war, depression and things like that. 

QUESTION: You and Nat Glazer wrote that New York City was “a salad bowl, not a melting pot.” In other words, there were still people who retained their own ethnic dimension. If you fast forward from that time to this time – the next third of a century – and you look at the exogamy rates, the intermarriage rates, things have changed. I mean, you have now 50 percent or more intermarriage. Polish-Americans have an exogamy rate of 90 percent. So when you say there’s the same number of foreign-born people in New York City, it’s not the same groups. The earlier, once-scorned Eastern Europeans have pretty well gone through this assimilation melting pot, haven't they? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Yes, they have, but without losing certain identities which seem to pass on from generation to generation, some of which grow intensified. We have something we call the “grandfather effect.” Grandfather comes over, son doesn't like any of that stuff, but the grandson says, “Hey, that was a great guy we had there,” and he feels easier about it. 

In the long run, people assimilate, but don't press them too hard. But it will be a long time before ethnic identity has disappeared in the United States. It’ll never – I mean, it just becomes more complicated. 

QUESTION: Tell me about the “Liberty Party.” That was a phrase I think you came up with when you were the U.N. ambassador. And again, talking about trends, both in the United States and around the world, are we seeing in the United States and around the world a movement toward ever greater liberty? 

SEN. MOYNIHAN: Oh, yes, Ben. For the first time in the history of the species, you can say that the majority of people today live under democratically elected governments. Not all of them stable, but so many for which stability just is a given. 

Remember, the twentieth century was the most horrible century in history – the First World War, the rise of fascism and communism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, all that. Well, you know, it happened in Europe. It didn't happen in some remote, savage districts of the world; it was one of the most civilized. Well, but that's behind them. 

It was interesting to me how the European Union responded to the Austrian decision to let a far-right party into government, not just in parliament. “No,” they said. “No, no. We don't do that.” And, “That's over with us.” 

[So] if we haven’t become the Liberty Party of an undoubted future, let us take this fact, the great totalitarian regimes have died. The Soviet Union broke up along ethnic lines, as we always thought it would. The Chinese – am I wrong? – are becoming a commercial civilization.


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