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In Memoriam: Daniel Patrick Moynihan

March 27, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: He was a renaissance man and then some– senator, professor, ambassador, thinker, storyteller, loyal friend, an intellectual who grew up poor in New York City, where he shined shoes to help his family make ends meet; the only man in history to serve four consecutive presidents in high- level positions, from John Kennedy through Gerald Ford. Whatever he was, wherever he was, he was a man of ideas, of public service. In 1981, he appeared on this program with his first Senate opponent, conservative James Buckley. The subject was U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia and Israel. The tenor was classic Moynihan.

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN (The MacNeil-Lehrer Report 1981) Look, it is the Saudis who in January said, “let’s cleanse Jerusalem of the Jews”; the Saudis who in March said, “our enemy is not the Soviet Union, it is Israel”; the Saudis who on Saturday said the United States sixth fleet defending the… its own airplanes in the airspace over in the open seas, high seas, declared it to be a medieval act of piracy. Now, this is not something that should get us aroused to the point of enmity. But to arm people who say such things, what sense does that make? What does the administration… what comes next?

JIM LEHRER: Let’s ask the secretary.

JAMES BUCKLEY: I must confess that this reminds me of some campaign debates I had with the senator a few years ago. I would like to think that he was dancing around the point.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. For non-New Yorkers, let me explain, of course, that these two gentlemen opposed each other in a race for the United States Senate in New York a few years ago.

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN And have a very high regard for one another.

JAMES BUCKLEY: That we do, that we do.

JIM LEHRER: Later in 1981, he discussed the crisis in Poland, where the government had imposed martial law.

JIM LEHRER: You suggest going to the United Nations. You, of course, are a former ambassador to the United Nations. What could the U.N. do that might be effective?

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: It can watch the soviets prevent anything from being done. We cannot too often show the world what the nature of that regime is. No, they’ll veto anything, of course, but let them do it. Let them explain that to the world.

JIM LEHRER: Always Moynihan had great respect and confidence in the process of democracy. In 1982, he talked about the use of a filibuster in the Senate on the issue of school prayer.

JIM LEHRER: (The MacNeil-Lehrer Report 1982) Senator, are you at all troubled by yours and others’ use of a filibuster to accomplish this?

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: No, sir, we have played by the rules. We have those rights under the rules. The Senate was intended to be a deliberative body and a careful body and not a place where by a majority of one you can change the balance of powers within the American government. We are fighting — sir, if I can, I kept it in my hand for three weeks now, the Constitution, and that is sacred. And that… it goes beyond any issues of the moment.

JIM LEHRER: On another occasion, he even quoted something in Latin on the NewsHour.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer 1995): And you think that by responding to it this way, we could do more harm than good, is that right?

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN Hippocrates, primum non nocure, “First do no harm.”

JIM LEHRER: A decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist government, Moynihan predicted the downfall of the Soviet Union. In a 1998 conversation with David Gergen, he said the CIA had failed to see what was coming.

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer 1998) We knew that the Soviet Union was gaining on us inside the government. We knew that the per capita GD in East Germany was higher than West Germany. I once said to head of the CIA, CIA Director, you know, “any taxi driver in Berlin could have told you that wasn’t so.” He said, “any taxi driver in Washington.” But it was what our computer models told us. It was the crossover point, a model that began under Eisenhower and the Soviet growing faster than us, and at a certain point they would surpass us. And we were utterly unprepared, and I would put it to you this way: We still act as if the Soviet Union was our enemy and somehow is still there in the form of Russia, don’t notice that the Russian people overthrew a totalitarian regime of the most extraordinary power, bloodless revolution, and whereas… and right away after World War II, we began to rebuild Germany, rebuild Italy, Japan, as well as France and Britain. We do nothing while Russia just begins to fall apart, and it… with the second-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, and it… we can’t be open about this.

JIM LEHRER: Daniel Patrick Moynihan was, above all, a wordsmith. Columnist George Will has said Moynihan wrote more books than most senators have read. In fact, he authored 18. He was 76 years old, a navy veteran. He will be buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday. Political writer Michael Barone wrote about Moynihan today. “He was the best thinker among politicians since Lincoln, the best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.” We’ll see you online and again here tomorrow evening. I’m Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.