Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), an academic and political maverick who stood for more than two decades as the intellectual heart of the chamber, died Wednesday. He was 76.
Moynihan had been suffering from ill health since January, when an intestinal disorder first landed him in the hospital. The outlook darkened considerably when Moynihan more recently suffered an infection after an emergency apendectomy.
On Capitol Hill Wednesday evening, the former Senator was remembered for everything from his decade-long crusade for welfare reform to his abiding interest in civic renewal, from the Penn Station train terminal in New York City to Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue.
“In many respects, Pat Moynihan was larger than life,” said Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), who lauded the New York Democrat for his 24 years of service in the Senate, and for his work as an aide to four consecutive presidents, starting with John F. Kennedy and ending with Gerald Ford.
“The whole Senate loved and respected Pat,” added Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). “As he often said, ‘If you don’t have 30 years to devote to social policy, don’t get involved.’”
The breadth of Moynihan’s career and interests underscored an impatient — and often quirky — intelligence that was consistent even as it was unpredictable.
As if to highlight the point, Moynihan capped his Senate career by ushering outgoing first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton into the seat he was about to vacate, while at the same time abandoning outgoing Vice President Al Gore in his bid for the presidency.
Asked at the time why he was throwing his support to Gore’s lone rival in the presidential primaries, former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Moynihan responded succinctly, “Al Gore can’t win.”
Moynihan’s former colleagues learned of his passing at a meeting of Democratic Senators that followed final passage of the $2.2 trillion budget resolution. Clinton subsequently delivered the news of his death in a speech on the Senate floor.
“For those of us who were privileged to know him, to work with him, to admire and respect him, this is a loss beyond my capacity to express,” Clinton said, holding back her emotions as she delivered the first of what is likely to be many Senate floor speeches over the next several days eulogizing Moynihan.
The Almanac of American Politics once called Moynihan “the nation’s best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.” And indeed, throughout his career Moynihan assiduously straddled the worlds of academics and the political arts.
Moynihan’s signature legislative initiative, welfare reform, grew out of scholarly research he undertook beginning in the 1960s, at the onset of the Great Society, when he pinpointed a forthcoming crisis in the black American family due to out-of-wedlock births.
The welfare measure was finally signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, though not before Moynihan, who was by then the ranking member on the Finance Committee, scolded the administration for pushing back the reforms in favor of a massive reform plan for health care.
“We don’t have a health care crisis in this country. We do have a welfare crisis,” Moynihan famously said in 1994 during one of his many appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
As chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Moynihan played an important role in guiding transportation projects and the architecture of government buildings, often personally reviewing the blueprints in his office.
He may well be most remembered for his pioneering work to revitalize the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol, a neighborhood where he lived until his death.
As Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) noted, “The lasting monument of this great man, I must say to you, for this city and the country, is surely his work in resurrecting Pennsylvania Avenue. From the Capitol to the White House, instead of a slum, the American people now see an avenue the equivalent of the Champs Elysee. It would not have been that way were it not for the determination and the sheer persistence of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.”
The New York lawmaker arrived in the Senate in 1976 as already one of the most well-traveled and influential personages in public life. He began his political career as an aide to then-New York Gov. Averell Harriman (D), before moving on to serve as an assistant Labor secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Moynihan then leapt to the other side of the political aisle, serving President Richard Nixon as his chief domestic policy adviser, before becoming ambassador to the United Nations under President Ford.
Moynihan published his first book in 1963. “Beyond the Melting Pot’’ looked at minority groups in New York City. Its conclusion was that the prevailing assumption at the time was wrong — that minorities assimilated into the broader American culture.
He published his last book in 1998. “Secrecy, the American Experience’’ explained how secrecy in government “deformed” American values in the 20th century.
Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) noted when Moynihan retired that the Senator’s life could happen “only in America. It makes us so proud, those of us that come from the great state of New York, to know that someone that could attend a high school like Ben Franklin, know Hell’s Kitchen, know what it is like to shine shoes and work on the docks, and at the same time, be able to reach the intellectual heights that you have done, not just for New Yorkers or the Senate, but for America.”
“It gives hope to everybody in this country, but especially throughout the world, to show that when one is given an opportunity, that maybe they cannot reach the same heights that you have, but it is possible to do it in the United States of America.”
Mark Preston and Damon Chappie contributed to this report.