How lucky Pat Moynihan could have gone all the way

Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (aapss.org)
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The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Almost everything that has happened to me has taken place by chance.”

Moynihan, who would have turned 85 today, rose from the floorboards of Depression-era Manhattan tenements to author 18 books, become one of New York’s longest serving United States senators, and sit in the cabinet or sub-cabinet of four successive American presidents—the only person ever to have done so. “Chance encounters, random walks,” he called them. This was an Irish Catholic’s way of saying he was lucky.

Though not too lucky. Because if things had gone a little differently one day in 1965, he could have found himself on a path to the presidency.

It is important to understand that though he seemed to be handed a PhD upon birth, Pat Moynihan spent the first decade and a half of his professional life not as a professor, but as a politician.

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He began as a speechwriter for Robert Wagner’s 1953 mayoral campaign, and quickly graduated to Governor Averell Harriman’s side. The heir to a railroad fortune and ambassador to both the Soviets and the Brits, Harriman taught Moynihan well over their four years together in Albany. And when Republican Nelson Rockefeller ousted them in 1958, Harriman commissioned Moynihan to write a book on his administration as a scholar-in-residence at Syracuse University, during which time he completed his PhD.

That’s right: Moynihan’s first job in academia was a political appointment.

In 1960, Moynihan went to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles as a Kennedy delegate, and scratched his way into a high-ranking position at the new administration’s Labor Department.

Fast-forward to the spring of 1965. Mayor Wagner announced he would not seek a fourth term in the fall. The main contenders for the Democratic nomination were his 1961 running mates: City Council President Paul Screvane and the comptroller, Abe Beame. New York’s newest United States Senator, Robert F. Kennedy, liked neither of them.

So the Kennedy forces went hunting for a candidate, unsuccessfully at first, until one night when the Senator had dinner at the Harrimans in Washington. That’s where the idea struck: Moynihan for Mayor… a New Frontiersman for New York. It was perfect—well, except for the fact that Moynihan hadn’t lived in the city since he’d gone to work for Harriman a decade earlier. But other than that, perfect.

Kennedy’s aides set about planting a story in the Times without informing the potential candidate, who was traveling overseas. Reached for comment, his reaction was reported as such: “Mr. Moynihan paused for 10 seconds, caught his breath and asked, ‘What?’”

But as brilliant as Bobby Kennedy had been as his brother’s national strategist, he was not a New York politician. No mayor had ever gotten his start at a D.C. salon dinner. Moynihan placed a few groundwork calls but surmised his best bet was to join Screvane and form one of those classic ethnically balanced Democratic tickets. Thus, Moynihan agreed to run for City Council president with Screvane for mayor and Orin Lehman for comptroller—Ireland sandwiched between Italy and Israel.

It was a mild, if not boring, campaign through the summer. The Screvane slate received the backing from the Wagner alliance and the Manhattan party regulars, Beame lined up the bosses of Brooklyn and the Bronx, and two other candidates siphoned off the Lexington Club liberals and various other members of the reformer set. Screvane was holding onto his lead in the polls, but Beame was coming up fast.

All of that happened.

HERE’S THE SCENARIO THAT COULD have changed the course of Moynihan’s career, and American history.

Bobby Kennedy steps into the mayor's race. While the outer-borough bosses remained close allies, it is not reason enough for Kennedy to sit on his hands while the doltish Beame crew gains steam. Screvane had worked hard for the Massachusetts carpetbagger in ’64, and Moynihan was a Kennedy man through and through. So Bobby endorses.

He loads the ticket on the back of a flatbed truck and campaigns with them up and down Manhattan, drawing the monster crowds that only a political celebrity of his caliber could attract. (As a courtesy to the bosses, he stays out of Brooklyn and the Bronx.) He dispatches Moynihan to storm the reform clubs arm-in-arm with Schlesinger and Harriman, asking them if they want to vote for one moment of a protest or four years of an administration.

On primary day, the Screvane ticket overcomes the Beame team’s impressive outer-borough showing. But Screvane becomes mincemeat in November. Republican John Lindsay and Conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. peel off both liberal and blue-collar Democrats at the top of the ticket but don’t field strong running mates. Lindsay is elected mayor, and the rest of Screvane’s slate wins by default.

Suddenly, Daniel Patrick Moynihan is the second-most important Democrat in the state of New York, and the de facto 1966 nominee for governor. This is quite a development, since Governor Nelson Rockefeller has been reeling for the entirety of his second term, and the polls are saying that any Democrat could beat him.

Moynihan is better situated than most. In 1962, Robert Kennedy dispatched him to work on Robert Morgenthau’s doomed gubernatorial campaign with specific instructions: collect opposition research on Rockefeller. President Kennedy’s re-election campaign needed to create a dossier in the event that Rockefeller became the Republican nominee. He didn’t, but Moynihan came away with four file drawers’ worth of oppo.

Not only is the party’s 1966 nominee an expert on his opponent’s flawed record, he is also well-versed in the administration of New York state government, having literally written the book on the Harriman administration. And by binding the Wagner and Kennedy factions that had divided the party, New York’s Democrats go into a bad national year with a united front. Even in the face of Rockefeller’s millions, Moynihan cruises to victory.

As governor, Pat Moynihan is Bobby Kennedy’s man in Albany, exercising autonomy where he cand. His controversial 1965 report on African-American family life dogs him throughout his campaigns, yet it also forces an uncomfortable dialogue about the state’s role in the next phase in the civil rights movement—the transition between advocating “liberty” (the right to vote, integration of public facilities) and “equality” (advancement in education, housing, jobs). In this respect, Moynihan’s aims align with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s shift to economic-centered arguments, and they work together on remedies for plight of the Northern ghetto.

He is increasingly concerned about the national Democratic Party, taken over by reform liberals, turning its back on working-class whites—the Italian and Irish ethnics—who have largely moved out of poverty but are still on the edge of it. And from New York, Governor Moynihan builds the forerunner of for the party’s new coalition.

When Robert Kennedy is assassinated, Moynihan waits for Ted Kennedy to make a move rather than pursuing the 1968 presidential nomination. By the time Ted bows out, Moynihan recognizes the hour is too late to stop Hubert Humphrey. Four years later he defers to his friend Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson in his quest for the nomination. Privately, he had hoped for a deadlocked convention in which he might stand a chance, but they all badly misread the new delegate system—except for the man who designed it, Senator George McGovern. The Jackson forces fight on, and despite protests from Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, it is Governor Moynihan who delivers the nominating speech. Four years after that, in 1976, Daniel Patrick Moynihan runs for and wins the Democratic nomination, topping a weak field. America elects its second Northeastern Irish Catholic president—a restart after Watergate and the downfall of Richard Nixon.

THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN, OF COURSE.

Moynihan, along with the entire Screvane ticket, lost the 1965 primary. Bobby Kennedy never endorsed, opting to hedge his bets instead. Liz Moynihan shunned him—by one report, slapped him—when he arrived at their campaign headquarters that night. Seeing him likely headed for defeat, Wesleyan’s Center for Advanced Studies offered Moynihan a job earlier that morning, and James Q. Wilson began scheming to bring him to Harvard. 

Abe Beame’s running mate Frank O’Connor was elected City Council president and thus became 1966 Democratic gubernatorial nominee. He went on to run a campaign that the New York Times described in its final weeks as “a near-disaster of amateurism and inadequate depth.”

Anyway, to run for governor, Moynihan would have had to find a way around the state's strict five-year residency requirement.

When asked about his 1965 electoral loss some years later, Senator Moynihan called it a blessing, saying that he probably would have ended up in jail—not the presidency—had he gone into city government back then. Chance encounters, random walks.