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Book Review: American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan

By (March 31, 2015) No Comment

American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihanuncommon liberalism cover

by Greg Weiner

University Press of Kansas, 2015

Greg Weiner is a professor of political science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and his new book, The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, leaps into the subject of late Senator from New York’s political thinking with a friendly gusto that’s almost immediately hamstrung by his book’s monograph length of 140-something pages. As Weiner points out, Moynihan believed, with Edmund Burke, that “… the nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs …” So who are these backstage tyrants at the University Press of Kansas? Who are these griping Jacob Marleys crouching behind desks telling authors like Lawrence Friedman, wanting to write a history of showcase courtroom trials in America, or Weiner, wanting to write a political-intellectual appreciation of one of the most complex and capable statesmen America has ever produced, “Yes, yes, certainly, we green-light you proposal – but you must complete the whole thing using just these fifty sheets of foolscap! Bwah-hah-hah! Gentlemen: to evil!”

Weiner acquits himself as best he can under the circumstances (I’m sure the war-rationing board will be pleased, since the 400 extra pages the book might easily have run to can now be used in the fight against the Fuhrer), but once you’ve cranked up the notorious intellectual fog-machine that is Edmund Burke, you’re going exhaust your maneuvering room fairly quickly. Among other things, Weiner wants to know what kind of a Burkean Moynihan was, and since Burke didn’t know what kind of Burkean Burke was on odd-numbered days of any given week, this is no easy question to answer.

The end result is therefore almost necessarily uneven and at times fight-provoking. Weiner is quite right to say that Moynihan “possessed an uncanny ability to conceptualize problems in transformative ways” – underneath an at times maddeningly patrician exterior, the man was an electrifyingly daring thinker – and Weiner does a very good job of conveying both the originality of his subject’s thought and its frequent unpredictability:

In his imagination, traffic safety became a matter of epidemiology, secrecy a form of regulation. Guns didn’t kill people, bullets did. The problem of welfare was not poverty but dependency. Society was “defining deviancy down” – reclassifying formerly deviant behavior as normal so as not to exceed its quota of abhorrence.

And Weiner is likewise effective at narrating (quickly! Quickly! Loose adverbs sink ships!) some of the high points of Moynihan’s political career, including his instantly notorious testy response to the rantings of an African strongman at the United Nations:

When Idi Amin, the lunatic dictator of Uganda, delivered a tirade to the United Nations denouncing Israel and the United States, Moynihan, eschewing the State Department’s preference for appeasing Africa, responded forcefully. In a speech to the staunchly anticommunist American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), he said the United States wanted to participate in economic progress for the developing world. “It must be clear, however,” he added, “that the United States doesn’t wish to do this because we accept responsibility for the economic condition of the Third and Fourth Worlds. We repudiate the charge that we have exploited or plundered other countries.” The United States, he continued, prized “the primacy of the individual – the rights of the individual, the welfare of the individual, the claims of the individual against those of the state.”

When the US mission staff later issued a mollifying press release noting that some of Amin’s comments had met with wide approval in international circles, Weiner writes that Moynihan “let it be known that not one goddamn thing Amin had said won my ‘wide approval.’”

By its author’s own admission, this is an affectionate portrait. And in its attempts to come to grips with the intricacies of Moynihan’s political thought, it’s often excellent, fit to sit on the same shelf as Robert Katzmann’s excellent 1998 collection Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The Intellectual in Public Life and especially Godfrey Hodgson’s 2000 book The Gentleman from New York. When Weiner flatly says “we need a Moyhihan in reserve” in today’s Senate, readers familiar with his towering, floppy-hair subject will nod in sad agreement. Those same readers might raise an eyebrow at lines like “Daniel Patrick Moynihan arrived in John F. Kennedy’s Washington a political idealist and left Lyndon Johnson’s administration a chastened man,” (Moynihan couldn’t have approximated being ‘chastened’ if he’d been slapped by Mother Teresa in the nave of the National Cathedral; if handed a stiff penance at Confession, he’d have slumped back, sighed, and said, “Well now that’s very interesting … let’s see what we have to work with on that …”) and they might hoot aloud at the following:

For his part, Moynihan was willing to use military strength to defend freedom, but he counseled prudence in efforts to expand it. The nature of his Wilsonianism was rooted in ideas rather than arms. His Wilson was a juridicial rather than a crusading figure. Force was to be extended through the medium of international law.

But in main part they’ll be charmed and interested by the wit and insight on display in The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan … and then they’ll be hurried on their way: the Shriners have these 140 pages booked solid for 10 pm.

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