Nixon and Moynihan: A Partnership Ahead of Partisanship
To plant the seeds of bureaucratic reform, President Nixon sought after advisors who were characterized by intellectual pugnacity and a challenger’s spirit. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the eventual head of the President’s Urban Affairs Counsel, was just the right man to have by his side for the kind of revolutionary changes he wanted to implement on the United States’ federal government.
President Nixon developed a strong admiration for Moynihan’s work and ethics well before he considered him for a Cabinet position. Having read several articles penned by Moynihan before the 1968 campaign, he felt that Moynihan’s views were a refreshing and welcome change to the liberal elite rhetoric consuming much of America’s popular media.
In his memoirs, the President shared some encouraging words about Dr. Moynihan:
“Unlike so many liberal academics, Moynihan was free of professional jargon and ideological cant. He had helped design the Great Society poverty programs, but he was not afraid to acknowledge that many of them had failed, and he was ready to apply the lessons learned from that failure to devising new programs that might work.”
Though Moynihan held a strictly oppositional stance to the Vietnam War, President Nixon recognized how critical of an asset he would be in solving many of the nation’s domestic ineptitudes, namely the current welfare system.
President Nixon agreed that he and Moynihan’s “shared conviction that the current welfare system had to be totally reformed helped to cement the rapport” that they both developed with each other.
Of course, as one of the fathers of LBJ’s Great Society programs, Moynihan was akin to the bureaucratic types who hinged on the successes of big government and huge entitlement programs. He was also familiar with how entrenched in power these big users were. When President Nixon approached Moynihan in 1968 in hopes of having him on board the administration, and Moynihan seemed to pledge in full his support towards instigating immediate welfare reform. However, when the time came during the presidency to craft legislative proposals, Moynihan shied, only to warn the President of the perils of facing the bureaucratic juggernaut.
Moynihan shared a candid assessment with the President of the dangers of challenging the Great Society programs:
“All the Great Society activist constituencies are lying out there in wait, poised to get you if you try to come after them: the professional welfarists, the urban planners, the day-carers, the social workers, the public housers. Frankly, I’m terrified at the thought of cutting back too fast. Just take Model Cities. The urban ghettos will go up in flames if you cut it out.”
For the President, however, the time to scale back Great Society programs—beginning with Welfare Reform—needed to happen as soon as possible. In response to Dr. Moynihan’s concerns, President Nixon had this to say in his memoirs:
“Even when I thought Pat Moynihan was wrong about a particular issue or problem, I found his intellect scintillating and challenging.”
His scintillating intellect would nonetheless assist President Nixon in shaping the much maligned Family Assistance Program (FAP) in a matter of a few months, shot down by critics from all political spectrums. The FAP program would not be christened by the President’s pen.
Though a Democrat and a man of liberal leanings, Moynihan held one perspective that President Nixon found intriguingly agreeable. There was a large segment of the American population that was being drowned out by the noise of elite liberal banter as well as a constant preoccupation with problems in the black community. As Moynihan once frankly stated:
“Someone should be pointing out that when an upper-middle-class Ivy Leaguer says something particularly outrageous, official America is supposed to respond that ‘he is trying to tell us something.’ But when a young construction worker says something in response, we are to conclude that he is a dangerous neo-fascist who must be silenced.”
President Nixon believed in a more just society—one that would go forward together, black and white, “as one nation, not two.” He recruited Moynihan to address this spirit in some of the most controversial aspects of domestic affairs: welfare, education, employment, and minority business enterprise—all while racial tensions remained high and partisan groups spouted extremes.
Moynihan was among the strongest advocates of civil rights program in the Nixon Administration. It was for this reason that President Nixon wanted to work with him to deliver on his promise for a more just society.
Watch as Panelists discuss the legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his time in the White House below.