Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) did not just live in the twentieth century, he strode across it: a colossus of ideas and a man of deeds. He was a seminal public intellectual and sociologist, policy specialist, ambassador and long serving senator. Moynihan was a moralist in a political world where morality – the urge to do good – is often overcome by the desire to do well. He had, as one friend, recalled, a “ mystical belief in public service.” In an age of rigid ideologies and political sloganeering, he was a man who embraced the contradictions and complexity of public policy without ever despairing of the role of government in the lives of its citizens. A decade after his death The Moynihan Documentary Project, the first feature length documentary about his life, captures Moynihan, the man, the thinker and the doer as never before.
More than simply a traditional great man biography, the film portrays the spirit of Moynihan’s ideas as they evolved over the course of his remarkable and often tumultuous life in postwar America, both the triumphs and the controversies. Moynihan was a public intellectual, a man who understood ideas as they existed in and influenced the world. His own work was shaped as much by his own life as by his research. His ground-breaking Beyond the Melting Pot, written with Nathan Glazer, on ethnicity in America was informed by his Irish American childhood in New York City. And one of his greatest insights into poverty and the single African-American mother was initially decried as racist and yet Moynihan’s understanding of the problem drew on the deep experience of his own childhood as the son of a single mother abandoned by her husband.
Moynihan’s writings such as these were instrumental in defining the debate over social policy and the boundaries of social progress in the late twentieth century. To understand Moynihan’s life and work is, in large part, to understand the political-intellectual history of America in his lifetime. In this sense, the film is not only a history, but an exploration into the heady and boisterous world of ideas that was Moynihan’s natural milieu. And, though the man himself is gone, his work retains its power and has much to add to the raging debate over social policy between left and right today.
Like few other contemporaries, Moynihan acted on his ideas; he fought in the public arena whether designing policy in the White House or crafting legislation in the Senate. His legacy is defined by his political as well as his intellectual career. And that political career itself was unique: no other American has worked in four successive Presidential cabinets, much less two Democratic and two Republican. Moynihan knew how to fight hard for his ideas, but he understood how to compromise as well. Just as he reveled in the give and take of intellectual combat, he understood the importance of political bipartisanship as the key to American democracy. In an era of extreme polarization, Moynihan’s legacy as a politician is as important today as that of Moynihan the statesman and Moynihan the brilliant intellectual.