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Pat Moynihan's Letters Illuminate an Extraordinary Life

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When I met Maura Moynihan, she was literally the girl next door. Memories of that time are pharmaceutically hazy -- it was the heyday of punk -- but Maura stood out. She was, of course, the daughter of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York's Democratic senator and an intellectual giant. But she was also a young singer/songwriter, and with her pals made some pretty glorious noise in apartment 6-G (I was 6-H) in the Van Gogh building in Manhattan's West Village.

I didn't see Maura again until a lunch meeting some 25 years later, shortly after Pat's death in 2003. We talked about our dads -- mine had died a couple of years before -- and I left with the unforgettable image of her father propped up in his hospital bed suffering mightily from the infection that would soon kill him yet utterly engrossed by a weighty tome about the crusades. What a way to go!

Daniel Patrick Moynihan's career combined the intellectual, the moral and the political in a way that would be unimaginable for a significant contemporary politician. In addition to his four terms in the Senate (1976-2000), he served in key positions under four presidents, was a tenured professor at Harvard, lectured widely and wrote dozens of books, hundreds of articles and essays and far too many letters to count.

Now, for the first time, a selection of those letters has been published in Daniel Patrick Moynihan, A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (PublicAffairs, $35.00), edited and with an introduction by Steven Weisman and featuring an essay by Maura, "My Father the Writer":

In my father's papers, which he donated to the Library of Congress, we found a treasure trove of letters, in which he chronicles his life and times. Dad wrote every day, even at Christmas, on an old Smith-Corona typewriter. In the age of email, our letters vanish without a trace, and this may be one the last great epistolary collections in American politics. Of Dad's many notable quotes there are two I think of most often: From 1963: "I don't suppose there's any point in being Irish if you don't know the world's going to break your heart eventually." And from 1977: "In Washington I learned as an adult what I had known as a child, which is that the world is a dangerous place. And I learned also that not everyone knows this."

Open to any page of the just-released book and you may be touched by Moynihan's humanism; tickled by his self-deprecating humor; awed by his intellectual prowess and writerly cadence; saddened by the fact that no public official would dare say these kinds of things today; impressed by his unabashed and courageous social liberalism or infuriated by his hawkish foreign policy views.

Moynihan's letters limn his fascinating, complicated relationship with Richard Nixon, who, in part thanks to Moynihan, did some good things but who, despite those things, ended up one of the most reviled and disgraced presidents in U.S. history. (Mark Feldstein's new book Poisoning the Press reminds us what a vile criminal Nixon was.) While serving as Nixon's house Democrat -- his posts included counselor on domestic policy and ambassador to India -- Moynihan pushed the administration in a progressive direction on domestic issues including aide to the poor and unemployment benefits. At the same time, the very fact that he worked closely with Nixon, along with his coining of the misunderstood phrase "benign neglect" to describe that administration's racial policies, was, understandably, more than many liberals could handle.

Moynihan's regular appearances on Meet The Press and other political talk shows were illuminating and delightful. With an elocutionary erudition surpassing that of his friendly rival, conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., Moynihan held forth with a staccato bravado -- that sometimes bordered on the comical -- punctuated by pregnant pauses, the result of a speech impediment and not, as Moynihan's political opponents sometimes suggested, a drinking problem.

In his introduction to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, Weisman notes that many of Moynihan's letters bespeak his commitment to architecture as "the embodiment of American history and values." Indeed, Moynihan played a leadership role in the construction of Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and the renovation of Pennsylvania Avenue. In Manhattan, the designation of Moynihan Station at the site of the old Post Office building across from Penn Station in Manhattan -- a project Moynihan pushed for years -- will be a posthumous monument to the senator.

Maura is as peripatetic as her dad ever was. She's lived all over the world, speaks six languages, is active politically in the U.S. and Asia, writes books, songs, articles and essays and still finds time to see to it that Moynihan Station reflects her father's astonishing legacy.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan's independence, passion and intellectual heft would make him a political non-starter in today's electoral atmosphere of predictability, money and cowardice. Let this book of letters remind us of the real thing -- an imperfect but brilliant public servant with the courage of his convictions.