The Blog

Both Great and Good

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ambassador, senator, and intellectual, managed to be both great and kind.

4:00 PM, Mar 31, 2003 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"IT LOOKS LIKE you've got some competition, Teddy," said Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

"I do?" replied a puzzled Theodore White.

"Danny Wattenberg here is taking intensive notes," the ambassador explained, with a nod to where I was seated, on the jump seat of the 6-seat Lear jet.

"The more, the merrier," White exclaimed.

"He's writing 'The Making of the Making of the President,'" joked my father.

Not quite. I was working on a story for my high school newspaper and I never even finished it.

It was early March, 1976. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was campaigning through Florida for Scoop Jackson in that state's presidential primary. I had taken some days off from school to tag along on the small jet with Moynihan, White, and my father, Ben Wattenberg, who was then a Jackson adviser, as they hopscotched across Florida from airport to airport, fundraiser to fundraiser.

As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Moynihan had achieved something like folk-hero status nationally for his defiant eloquence in defense of newly unfashionable notions, like liberal democracy, and nations, like Israel.

The affection, gratitude, and admiration he enjoyed among the Jewish retirees of south Florida at that time would be difficult to convey. In a race for mayor of Miami, Thedore Herzl would have had a hard time beating him.

Among our stops that day was Jacksonville--and Moynihan's pugnacious patriotism played well in hawkish northern Florida, as well.

Across the state, he was received with an emotional heat that seems reserved for those political figures who most faithfully represent a set of core ideas and principles: Conviction politicians.

The warm respect, however, was not universal. Prior to Moynihan's arrival in Florida that day, a Jackson advance man and I had to negotiate with an airport official, a regulation-procedure guy, to make the VIP waiting room available to our visiting dignitary.

"But it's for Ambassador Moynihan," I explained.

"Moynihan . . . Ambassador Moynihan," the airport official considered. "What country is he from?"

Not that rank was without its privileges. It was late at night when we arrived back at our hotel in Miami, the Sheraton Four Ambassadors.

"Who are the other three?" demanded Ambassador Moynihan.

GREAT MEN are not often good men. Senator Moynihan was.

He was extraordinarily kind to me when I was younger. I was a very shy teenager, and he was one of the few adults with whom I succeeded in actually conversing.

I spent the summer of 1976 in New York City, as a volunteer on Moynihan's first campaign for the Senate. I became friends that summer with John Moynihan. John and I made the happy discovery that New York's Brew 'N' Burger restaurant chain served their Brew to 15 and 16 year-olds. Ah, the '70s.

It was a five-way contest for the Democratic nomination. The winner would effectively be New York's next senator, because lined up as the general election opponent was the conservative Republican incumbent, James Buckley, who had managed to squeak in six years earlier as the Conservative party nominee with a thin plurality in a flukey three-way race.

Moynihan was running bravely as a social moderate and foreign policy hawk for the nomination of an ultra-liberal New York Democratic party. His main opponent in the primary was Bella Abzug, who personified the McGovernite wing of the state's--and the country's--Democrats. Moynihan won the primary by a whisker, beginning a very important career in New York politics--and ending another, Bella Abzug's.

I would often accompany the candidate on his "walking tours" of the city. Sometimes it was John and me, sometimes the two of us and a high-strung retired developer named Lou Schwarz. Walking a half-block or so in front of the candidate, we would hand out leaflets with a self-important flourish, or intone campaigny-sounding things through the bullhorn. "Now, on 47th Street, meet the next senator from the state of . . ."

I worked hard all summer, on those days when I had not lunched at Brew 'N' Burger. And the morning after he won the primary, Moynihan called my home, here in D.C.'s Maryland suburbs, but I was at school. He asked my mother to tell me that the first person he called was Cardinal Cook, and the second was me.

I always thought that was one of the kindest things anyone outside of family had done for me. Then, just days ago, an old friend to whom I told the story pointed out that Moynihan had surely known that I would be in school at the time he called and that it had been his intention to reach my mother. Because he wanted to make her proud of me. Now I think it was the kindest thing anyone outside of family has done for me.