It is polite if not always accurate commentary after the death of a well-known political leader to say the passing has left the country diminished. But in the case of former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died Wednesday at age 76, the observation is appropriate.
It will be a long time before the nation sees another statesman of the caliber of the professorial Pat Moynihan. His professional resume was unparalleled. The man served four consecutive administrations in cabinet or sub-cabinet positions.
He was a presidential adviser, ambassador, and four-term U.S. senator whose wit, intellect, and independence made him a genuine Washington standout. In his tweeds and bow ties, the 24-year Senate veteran reveled in the dynamics of debate and political maneuverings that moved the country forward and backward.
But unlike many of his political colleagues before and after him, the former senator spoke and argued from a point of reference bordering on broad expertise. He was frequently the “go-to” guy on issues as diverse as welfare reform, transportation, and health care, to Social Security and foreign policy.
He was an anomaly in a political arena increasingly bereft of intellectuals with the passion and power to propose meaningful policy. Throughout his accomplished public life, the New York Democrat also seemed to enjoy confounding both liberals and conservatives. In his Senate office he had two framed magazine covers from two different publications alternatively describing him as “Moynihan: The conscience of a neo-conservative,” and “Pat Moynihan, neo-liberal.”
In truth Senator Moynihan was a devout liberal whose ideas to change the world refused to be stymied by partisan boundaries. As one writer put it, “He saw politics as a way to achieve great purposes, not just the self-aggrandizement so obviously prized by so many men and women who achieve high office.”
From a hardscrabble youth spent on the streets of New York to an elder statesman sought out by Republican and Democratic leaders alike, Pat Moynihan's rise to national prominence was extraordinary. Along the way he studied as a Fulbright Scholar at the London School of Economics, taught at Syracuse University and Harvard, and authored 19 books.
Some might wonder how there could possibly have been enough hours in the day.
His many public service achievements can be seen in tangibles like the rejuvenation of America's Main Street - Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington - to the indelible imprints he left on public policy from international diplomacy to the nation's welfare laws.
A fellow New Yorker, Sen. Charles Schumer, said” I just hope God gives us a few more Pat Moynihans in this Senate and in this country.”
Until then the country definitely will be the poorer for the loss of his intellect and integrity on the discourse of the day.