The Lost Faith of Daniel Patrick Moynihan : The Cerebral Liberal’s Pivotal Chance to Shape Social Policy Comes at a Time Wen He Confronts Doubts That He--or Anyone--Can Solve America’s Problems

<i> Karen Tumulty is a staff writer in The Times' Washington Bureau. Times researcher Pat Welch contributed to this report</i>

No one who was in the Cabinet Room on that fall morning could have known it then, but they were witnessing the last time that John F. Kennedy would publicly exercise what the civics books say is the most basic and important power of a President--signing a bill into law.

Called the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963, it embodied all the optimistic and confident new thinking that Kennedy and his youthful Administration had brought to Washington. The appeal of this particular legislation had been irresistible, even to the conservative Southern warhorses of Capitol Hill, who had blocked most of Kennedy’s other social initiatives that year.

This was the plan: An enlightened and compassionate nation would clean out the crowded warehouses that had held the retarded and the mentally ill in a 19th-Century nether world of darkness and isolation. Science had opened the way with miraculous new drugs that reclaimed wasted minds. Now, government would do its part by building places where those people could find treatment and begin productive lives.

“The mentally ill and the mentally retarded need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities,” Kennedy said. “I think that in the years to come, those who have been engaged in this enterprise can feel the greatest source of pride and satisfaction.”


One who was there to hear those words was a relatively unknown 36-year-old assistant secretary of labor. He worshiped this President, and though he would later serve in more exalted positions for three other chief executives, he would look back and write: “Kennedy had been ‘my’ President in a way that happens only once.”

His President even gave him one of the fountain pens with which he had signed the bill. Nestled on red velvet, it is framed in gold with a card inscribed: “This pen was used by President Kennedy in signing Public Law Number 88-164, October 31, 1963, and presented to Daniel P. Moynihan.”

Three decades later, that pen hangs in the conference room behind the Senate Finance Committee chamber. In that proverbial back room, the committee that many consider the most powerful in Congress will give shape to the heart of President Clinton’s domestic agenda: health care and welfare reform.

To Chairman Pat Moynihan, the pen is no mere souvenir. He believes that it set into motion a national tragedy. The asylums emptied out, but the government never built the 2,000 community centers that were supposed to be in place by 1980; it stopped at a woefully short 482. And as a result, the deinstitutionalized mentally ill were literally left out in the cold. They were free all right, Moynihan has said. “They might henceforth sleep in doorways as often as they chose. The problem of the homeless appeared, characteristically defined as persons who lacked ‘affordable housing.’ ”

The cautionary tale of the pen, then, is that not even the smartest, most well-meaning people can anticipate all the consequences of their actions. Its moral is that, trying to solve one problem by dismantling the system that surrounds it may sometimes produce only a different kind of misery.

Many social scientists would disagree with Moynihan’s analysis that the complex problem of homelessness can be blamed on that single piece of legislation, but there is no doubting the New York Democrat’s conviction. “It’s been absolutely catastrophic,” he says, “a tribute to ignorance and all that is wrong, and it would never have happened if we hadn’t set out to improve things.”

“If we hadn’t set out to improve things . . . " Moynihan tells the story so often that some senators are beginning to find it tiresome. It bears repeating here, because it begins to explain the reading of history that shapes Moynihan’s fears for the future. It helps explain the things about Moynihan that are often written off as eccentricity or whimsy: the penchant for launching verbal neutron bombs at the Clinton team; the fits of pique that have strained his relationship with many of his Democratic colleagues; the reluctance to write a health-care bill, despite enormous pressure from the White House and Congress’ Democratic leadership.

To some, it seems that Pat Moynihan is standing in the way of his President and of his party. “He is brilliant. He is extraordinary in his breadth and depth of knowledge on issues, but it’s difficult to take that knowledge and experience and create a leadership role out of it,” says one senator. “He is less than successful in presenting solutions, whether it’s health care or welfare reform.”

Moynihan comes into this enormous power at a time when his party--the Democratic Party that he will proudly tell you is the oldest political organization on earth--has its first chance in more than a decade to change the direction of the country. Yet he finds himself isolated among his party’s liberal leaders, holding to the sensibilities of another era. “Moynihan represents the now-forgotten complex liberalism of the 1950s,” says historian Fred Siegel, a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, which calls itself a New Democratic think tank. “The liberalism since then has been, by and large, enthusiastic in a religious sense, and simple-minded. That older liberalism was cerebral, contemplative, more aware, in the wake of the disasters of totalitarianism, of how difficult it is to change people without creating ugly side effects.”

Moynihan, says Siegel, is “not just skeptical of bureaucracy. He’s skeptical of the capacity of social work to replace the family, and he’s been proven right.”

Today, as people ask Pat Moynihan for the answers, this man who has been so certain about so many things seems to be able to say only that he does not have them. He does not believe anyone else does either.

He has power now. But what does that mean when one has lost his confidence in what government can do--or worse, his faith in what it should do? His instincts and his experience seem to be telling him to be wary of grandiose schemes that wrap themselves in the banner of liberal activism. But any Democratic politician must also understand that squeamishness now could mean a historic opportunity missed.

A close friend puts it this way: “I think Pat is struggling with these two sides of his political being. The two sides of his nature--the intellectual side and the political side--grind like tectonic plates right along a fault line. He manages as well as he can.”

GIVEN THE HOLD OF THE SENATE FINANCE COMMITTEE OVER SO MUCH that is dear to Clinton, it is not surprising that White House officials are not particularly eager to criticize the chairman on the record. But the way in which they refuse to comment is telling in itself.

“Why add where there’s problems aplenty?” one normally chatty aide snaps, hastily hanging up the phone.

Moynihan originally regarded Clinton as the best thing to happen to the national government since Kennedy. As a candidate, the Arkansas governor had sounded many of the themes that Moynihan had been preaching for years--ideas such as personal responsibility and a rejection of the notion that more government spending was the answer to every social problem. “I have to say I like the idea of a 46-year-old governor coming to Washington with a zest for new ideas,” Moynihan wrote his constituents shortly before the presidential election. “It is just possible that we are going to see one of those periods of high energy here in the national government. Anyone who was here in Washington during the Kennedy years will never forget them.”

It must have seemed to Moynihan that Clinton could be the President who would bring the Democrats out of the ideological wilderness where they had been wandering since Jimmy Carter. And perhaps his infatuation might have continued and grown, had lightning not struck. As one senator--albeit one who was a member of the Finance Committee--he could have continued to play his roles of gadfly and sage, without challenging the Clinton agenda.

But when Clinton decided to tap Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen to be his Treasury secretary, by virtue of seniority, Moynihan moved up to assume the leadership of one of the most headstrong committees on Capitol Hill. Suddenly, Moynihan’s ideas counted.

There were more than a few whispers that Moynihan might not be up to the job he inherited from the cool, patrician Bentsen, who had run the committee with the grip of a board chairman. At 67, and approaching the end of three terms in office, Moynihan still seems the flighty Harvard professor, his limp white forelock flying as he lopes onto the Senate floor to deliver his lectures. If the question of the moment is the Mideast peace process, Moynihan launches into the division of the Ottoman Empire after World War I; if it is economics, he explains the calculations that go into determining national income.

His vision and insight are undeniable. When his peers were still celebrating the victories of the civil-rights marchers in the South, he was pointing to the North, to the cities where the black family was losing its battle to a more intractable enemy. When America was stockpiling arms for the ultimate nuclear clash, he was a decade ahead of events with his prediction that the Soviet Union would kill itself. When Ronald Reagan incited Republicans and Democrats to a bidding war to see who could cut taxes faster, it was Moynihan who foresaw the resulting deficits that could cripple government for generations.

“He’s a man who has seen many disasters,” says historian Siegel. “If you were going to sum up the tragedy of Pat Moynihan, it’s that he’s a man who saw much better than those around him, but nonetheless hasn’t been able to stop the course of history.”

Moynihan’s personal creed is the French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos’ observation that the worst, most corrupting lies are problems poorly stated, and for all these years, he has been trying to help explain what is wrong.

But chairmen of important congressional committees are judged not on how well they understand problems; they are expected to know how to fix them. Over the years, Moynihan had come to be regarded by colleagues as their in-house intellectual, one whose ideas were intriguing, but rather off the mark politically. His legislative skills were largely untested, with a massive 1991 surface transportation bill being the only major legislation that he had ever steered through a difficult floor fight.

And there was always the question of his drinking. In Washington, Moynihan has a reputation as a lush, which is reinforced by the perpetual flush of his cheeks and an odd manner of speaking that is somewhere between a splutter and a lisp. Of all the raps against Moynihan, this is the one that annoys his admirers the most. “He drinks much less than I do, and has for a long time,” says Washington super-lawyer Leonard Garment, an old friend. “He couldn’t do the things he does, and has done. He couldn’t write a book every summer. It’s all so silly, that business as if he is Mr. Hiccup.”

From the start, it appeared that the Clinton White House was ready to dismiss Moynihan as a legislative lightweight. Indeed, through the transition and the early weeks of the Administration, neither the President nor any of his top staffers even bothered to get in touch with the new chairman of the most pivotal committee in Congress.

More important, it seemed to Moynihan that the Clinton team was giving short shrift to welfare reform, an issue he cares about over all others. During his campaign, Clinton had vowed to “end welfare as we know it.” Once he was elected, however, it quickly became clear that welfare reform would take a back seat to health care, a topic in which Moynihan had never evinced much interest.

His mounting irritation boiled over the week before the inauguration, when Donna Shalala, Health and Human Services secretary nominee, focused on health to the virtual exclusion of welfare at her confirmation hearing before Moynihan’s committee. Setting what was to become the tone for his relations with the new Administration, Moynihan made the devastating suggestion that he could hear “the clatter of campaign promises being tossed out the window.”

After Clinton was in office, things got worse. An unidentified official at the White House suggested to Time magazine columnist Michael Kramer that Moynihan did not have a grip on the Finance Committee, and added: “He’s not one of us. . . . We’ll roll right over him if we have to.”

Yet when the time came last year for his first big test as chairman, Moynihan delivered the votes to keep Clinton’s economic plan alive. Even then, however, there were whispers that it was actually Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine who had done the heavy lifting, and the White House privately blamed Moynihan, though perhaps unfairly, for losing its proposed BTU tax.

Moynihan’s relationship with the Clinton Administration hasn’t jelled into anything that resembles trust or comfort. “He drives the White House nuts,” groans one Democratic congressman. “They have no idea where he’s going to come from hour to hour, day to day.”

Moynihan was the first Democrat to support the appointment of a prosecutor to look into the Whitewater affair. He said that the Administration policy on Bosnia is “shredding the entire legal order that we put into place at the end of World War II.” He described Clinton’s tepid statements on welfare reform as “boob bait for the bubbas.”

But none of Moynihan’s comments have been as damaging as the ones about health-care reform. His word for Clinton’s financing scheme was “fantasy.” The First Couple’s apocalyptic rhetoric, he suggested, was hype: “We don’t have a health-care crisis in this country. We do have a welfare crisis.”

Moynihan even threatened to hold health care hostage unless he saw some action on welfare reform, and the President had no choice but to pay the ransom. The White House went to work on a welfare proposal, despite warnings from others in Congress that it risked throwing the lawmaking machinery into overload. Now it appears that Congress will not take a serious look at the issue until next year.

Over and over, Moynihan pushes the button that plunges the White House into the spin cycle. Administration officials clench their teeth, face the cameras and suggest once again that the chairman’s complex views can easily lend themselves to misinterpretation. As much a part of the ritual are the chairman’s practiced expressions of bewilderment that anything he has said could have created such a fuss. For, after all, Moynihan insists, he was only stating the obvious.

Equally apparent to Moynihan is the need to bring Republicans--and specifically their leader, Bob Dole--into the action on health care. Working with only a two-vote Democratic majority on the Finance Committee, Moynihan knows that if even one on his side bolts, he loses. And looking ahead, the fight on the Senate floor would be easier if he could claim that he has bipartisan support.

“This bill is going to be a bipartisan bill. Any bill that drives off all the Republicans, save one or two, also scares off at least 10 Democrats,” says Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), a good friend of Moynihan and a former Finance Committee chairman himself.

As the chairman finds growing support and admiration from Republicans, he is becoming increasingly isolated from his own party. In a recent speech, Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), a Finance Committee member and one of Clinton’s most ardent health-care allies, warmly praised fellow Democrats who have not “dodged the bullet.” Notably absent from a list that included all the major Democratic players with jurisdiction over health care was Rockefeller’s own chairman--Moynihan. It was only one more sign that Democratic leaders are doing their best to steer as much of the health-care action as possible away from him.

His first setback came when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and a champion of health-care reform since the 1970s, refused to cede the entire bill to the Finance Committee. Although the White House was rooting for Kennedy, Clinton pointedly stayed outside what amounted to a nasty family fight.

Indeed, the turf battle over health care has sorely strained the relationship between Moynihan and the brother of the President he so admired. At the final moment before the bill was formally introduced last year, Kennedy prevailed through his superior mastery of the complicated Senate rules, leading Moynihan to threaten to publicly denounce Kennedy and to label the Clinton health plan a huge tax increase in disguise. (Kennedy and Moynihan’s staff members deny that such an episode occurred, but sources from the White House and Capitol Hill insist that it did.)

Unable to bring Moynihan under control, Majority Leader Mitchell was forced to abandon his plans to make a splashy event of the formal introduction of the biggest piece of legislation since the Great Depression. He submitted the bill to the Senate parliamentarian late on a weekend night, marking the occasion with only a written statement for the Congressional Record.

Since then, the efforts to cut Moynihan out of the action have only intensified. Behind the scenes, some Democrats have formed a private network that has been meeting feverishly. Not that he would care. Moynihan and his alter ego, Chief of Staff Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., rarely show up even for strategy sessions at the White House. “I’ve never been to a meeting in Washington outside the Finance or Ways and Means conference rooms that involved more than three people and accomplished anything,” O’Donnell told National Journal magazine.

Mitchell, also a member of the Finance Committee, is taking greater command. Having announced that he will retire at the end of this year, Mitchell wants to end his Senate career with a victory that will be regarded as nothing short of historic. He even turned down a chance at the Supreme Court so that he could devote his energies to seeing this bill through.

The tensions are evident. On one April weekend, Mitchell gathered his Democratic troops in Virginia for an in-depth discussion of their options on health reform. Right up until the last minute, sources say, it was unclear whether the Finance Committee chairman would even participate. At a subsequent closed-door luncheon where Mitchell presented Democrats with another set of health-care choices, Moynihan put in an appearance, then left after only a few minutes--ensuring that reporters, to whom he selectively doles out interviews (he would not grant an interview for this story), would note his exit.

Meanwhile, Kennedy was working behind the scenes with Mitchell and the White House to produce his own health-care bill. Weeks before Moynihan’s committee had even had its first official vote on the bill, Kennedy’s was well under way. But it would be folly to believe Moynihan will not have his day. “They will not run over Pat. If this becomes a head-to-head battle, Pat will win,” Packwood says. “I get awfully tired of people who underrate Pat.”

TO CHALK UP ALL THESE EPISODES TO MOYNIHAN’S CANTANKEROUSNESS IS to ignore his personal history--a political evolution that has often been well ahead of his party and of American society itself. “We’re getting up on 40 years of high-level public service, and he hasn’t forgotten a minute of it,” says James Q. Wilson, UCLA professor of management and public policy, who has known Moynihan almost that long.

When politics and expediency would dictate that he move one way, Moynihan can be expected to go the other. He went right when the country moved left in the 1960s, and headed the other way with Ronald Reagan’s election in the ‘80s.

Time has often proven that his vision was truer than that of those around him, but vindication has not come without cost. Moynihan has never really recovered from the most searing experience of his life: the backlash against his now-famous March, 1965, report to President Lyndon B. Johnson on the Negro family.

“The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations,” the assistant labor secretary wrote in the Moynihan Report. It proceeded to paint ghetto family life with a litany of brutal statistics that today have grown to staggering proportions: broken marriages, illegitimate births, households headed by women, drug addiction, unemployment, poverty. Others had seen these problems as well, but Moynihan was the first to wrap them in data--and more important, the first to try to force a national policy debate over them. It was, he wrote later, “the best work I had ever done, or would do.”

Yet the reaction was hardly what Moynihan had expected. Writer Nicholas Lemann has noted in his book on black migration to the North: “Because Moynihan had left out the solutions, and because the press had concentrated on the parts of the report that dealt with out-of-wedlock childbearing and ignored the parts about unemployment, it was possible to perceive it as a brief for doing nothing to help the black poor . . . because the straits they were in were of their own devising.”

Boston psychologist William Ryan leveled the most stinging description of what Moynihan had done, the label that would stick: “blaming the victim.”

An embittered Moynihan returned to New York, lost a race for City Council president and retreated to a teaching job at Harvard. He blamed the liberals for what had happened to him. Not his kind of liberal, of the more cerebral, more contemplative, more subtle tradition. He blamed the kind of liberal who had come to populate the New Left, whose power he said was “as rigid and destructive as any force in American life.”

The Moynihan Report and its fallout represent “a seminal moment in the decline of American liberalism. It was at that moment that liberalism began to substitute pieties for problem-solving,” says historian Siegel.

It was also the moment that it became apparent the once-comfortable label of liberal would never fit Moynihan again. It would appear that his ideology is a moving target, but it is more likely that he’s simply outpacing the rest of the country. In 1979, the Nation magazine called his “the conscience of a neo-conservative,” but when that movement was at its zenith two years later, the New Republic was featuring “Pat Moynihan, neo-liberal.”

“Pat has always been what you might call a revisionist progressive,” says the neo-conservative guru Irving Kristol, who has known Moynihan since the 1950s. “He comes out of the progressive Democratic movement in New York City, and he’s always thought of himself as progressive. On the other hand, he’s been involved in government long enough to be disillusioned with a lot of things government tries to do.”

The Moynihan Report was only the first of his bitter battles with the left. To the horror of his liberal friends at Harvard, Moynihan returned to Washington to join the Administration of Richard M. Nixon. His title was assistant to the President for urban affairs, a sort of domestic version of Henry Kissinger. Once again, a memo that he wrote to the President touched off a firestorm--this one including a widely misinterpreted recommendation that the Administration abandon its confrontational approach to racial issues and instead assume a posture of “benign neglect.”

To Moynihan, it seemed that it had become impossible to engage in any kind of discussion that involved race. “A certain kind of liberal conviction fixed on this issue,” he recalled. “The Administration was irredeemably damned, and so was I.”

On that score, it would seem that Moynihan might have found a political soul mate in Bill Clinton, who two decades later ran as a “New Democrat,” repudiating much of what the liberals in his party had come to represent. But Moynihan cannot help but hear echoes of that older version of party dogma in those who populate the Administration and the programs they bring before his committee. Both First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Shalala had been leaders of the Children’s Defense Fund, which unsuccessfully fought his welfare reform legislation in 1987.

That law was the most far-reaching overhaul of the welfare system in half a century, and included work-training requirements for welfare recipients as well as tighter enforcement of child-support orders. Presumably, it should form the basis for the next wave of welfare reforms. But Moynihan has little confidence in how the Clinton team will build on his earlier work. Last month, he told New York magazine: “Half the people they appointed had opposed the Welfare Reform Act of 1988.”

It is on welfare reform that Moynihan sees the deepest betrayal of liberalism by liberals. He still carries the scars he suffered from his fight during the Nixon years for the Family Assistance Plan. “It was one of the worst disappointments of his life,” says Maura Moynihan, his daughter.

The idea of the Family Assistance Plan was a radical one--giving government money outright to families, rather than pouring it into their communities or providing them an array of government services. It was a remarkable thing to have persuaded a Republican President to support, but then, Moynihan had a special way with Nixon.

For all their ideological differences, the President and his urban affairs adviser found a bond in the struggles and humiliations of having grown up poor. Late afternoons often would find Nixon and Moynihan chatting in the Oval Office. Moynihan shared and nurtured Nixon’s vision of leaving a social legacy that would be compared with that of the 19th-Century Tory statesman Benjamin Disraeli. In his memos to Nixon, Moynihan would paint every important policy decision as one on which history would be made. Later, Moynihan would say that Nixon was “the most civil man I ever worked for.”

Moynihan blamed the liberals in Congress for blocking the Family Assistance Plan--not because they believed it was flawed, but because they wanted to deny a Republican President the credit for bettering the lives of the poor. Garment, then counsel to the President, remembers going with Moynihan to Capitol Hill when the legislation was losing steam, and Nixon seemed prepared to give it one last push. Again and again, lawmakers of the left asked them: “Why should we give this to Richard Nixon?”

“We saw the arrogance of power in very concrete terms,” Garment says. “It was really, truly despicable.”

While Moynihan defended the concept for years, experiments in the 1970s showed that giving people money actually contributed to the breakup of families. That, too, is a lesson that he carries into the issues he faces today.

“He knows we don’t know what to do. He knows we don’t know how to remake a broken family, or prevent a teen-age girl from becoming a mother. He knows we do not know how to end welfare dependency at some humane price,” says one friend. “Yet, he is required to act as if he knows. You can’t say as a senator--much less as a chairman of the Senate Finance Committee--that we do not know how to do these things, and therefore, we shouldn’t do anything.”

FOR MOYNIHAN, THE PROBLEMS of the welfare system illuminate a far deeper source of this nation’s social deterioration--the vast and growing number of fatherless families.

“There is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring . . . any set of rational expectations about the future--that community asks for and gets chaos,” Moynihan wrote in a magazine article several months after his infamous report to Johnson.

Though he likes to discuss the problem in terms of data and trends, Moynihan’s experience with the broken family is far more personal. His own father--a publicist with a fondness for drinking, women and racetracks--abandoned the family when Pat was 10, and his eldest son never saw him again. Moynihan does not like to talk about the more intimate experiences of his childhood. Even his daughter, Maura, says she doesn’t know the full story. “He never dwelled on it,” she says. “He’s never been into being a victim.”

But there survive some glimpses of how deeply it affected him. Political consultant Douglas Schoen opened a 1979 biography of Moynihan by quoting something the future senator wrote when he was about 22: “I’ve lived much of my life in a jungle of broken families, watching them tear out each other’s minds, watching them feasting on each other’s hearts.”

Margaret Moynihan and her three children bounced from one spot to another, hitting bottom in the brawling waterfront section of Manhattan known as Hell’s Kitchen. As a youngster, Pat shined shoes around Times Square. He recalls hearing about the first major news event of his life, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, from a man whose shoes he was shining on Central Park West.

His mother married several times, in vain hope of finding financial security. Ultimately, she bought a saloon, where Pat could often be found tending the bar. As a teen, he also worked several months as a stevedore. Moynihan has claimed that he never seriously considered going to college, and insists he took the City College entrance exam “only to prove to myself that I was as smart as I thought I was.”

In a 1966 interview with the New York Times, Moynihan--then at Harvard--related: “I swaggered into the test room with my longshoreman’s loading hook sticking out of my back pocket. I wasn’t going to be mistaken for any sissy college kid. But I passed the test and decided to go to City--and that was the beginning of a lot of things in my life.”

The tale may have a bit of embroidery around the edges. In researching the biography, Schoen discovered that Moynihan was never required to take an entrance exam at City College, although he did have to pass one a year later to get into the Navy’s officer training program.

Navy training took him to Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he ran with a group of rich kids. He graduated with a BA from Tufts University in Boston on the GI Bill. At 23, he won a Fulbright Scholarship that took him to England and the London School of Economics.

He wanted to go into the foreign service, but the man who would be ambassador to India for Nixon and the United Nations for Gerald R. Ford (and editor- or author-to-be of 16 books) flunked the composition portion of the exam. So he found his way into state government and the administration of New York Gov. Averell Harriman.

It was while working for Harriman that he met Elizabeth Brennan, whom he married in 1955. A secretary, she worked alongside him in an office outside Harriman’s. Liz, an accomplished architectural historian, has run her husband’s campaigns and is his closest adviser. They have three grown children.

Since 1963, the family home has been Pindars Corners, a town that is little more than a traffic light in Upstate New York. At Derrymore, their farm, the bookshelves by his bed are jammed with German, French and Italian volumes. Moynihan’s idea of a vacation is to go to an old schoolhouse on the property and spend at least six hours a day writing his books on a 25-year-old electric typewriter.

THESE DAYS, HOWEVER, Moynihan’s chances to retreat to his typewriter and his world of ideas are fewer. For in the intellectual’s heart there lives a street pol--more particularly, one who is seeking reelection this year. Watching Moynihan on the stump is to be reminded that he got his first lessons in politics during the waning days of New York’s Tammany Hall clubhouses.

In late March, hundreds of Upstate New Yorkers jammed into the fire station of the little town of Chatham to let their senator hear their concerns firsthand. With delight, Moynihan pointed out that one of his questioners had been his insurance agent for more than 30 years and that another had been a colleague from his days in the Harriman Administration. When one elderly woman said she was fearful that federal subsidies for her retirement home would be cut, he assured her: “We’ll find out about this, and it won’t happen.”

“I think you’re wonderful,” she sighed.

He took pains to assure his constituents that, despite his leadership role in health-care reform, he would defend his home-state interests. “My concern in this bill is, first of all, to look after New York,” Moynihan said, adding that the ultimate legislation would reverse some of the old Medicaid formulas that have worked in favor of the South at the expense of northeastern states, and would protect big teaching hospitals and research centers.

But the professor in Moynihan kept creeping in as well--often to the obvious mystification of his audience. When one questioner asked about his comments critical of health-care reform, Moynihan quoted Bernanos’ theory about problems poorly stated, and pleaded guilty. When another asked about drug policy, he noted that the Harrison Act of 1914 had described heroin as a stimulant. And, of course, he told the story of the Kennedy pen once again.

In his reelection bid, Moynihan is being challenged in the September primary by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a flamboyant black activist whose name is almost as well known as Moynihan’s in New York City. (The Republican candidate is Bernadette Castro.) No one gives Sharpton much of a chance of winning, but he has succeeded in reviving the tensions between Moynihan and blacks that have never been far from the surface. A significant number of the state’s black and Latino elected officials have endorsed Sharpton, saying Moynihan has long neglected them. Indeed, some say, when they want something done for them in Washington, they go to their Republican senator, Alfonse D’Amato.

“We do not need an academician. We need a fighter, and Moynihan is not a fighter,” Sharpton says. “Any time a man is unchallenged, and can sit around writing books more than legislation, then he becomes a captive of his own academic world of theory, rather than the practical world that his constituents have to live in.”

THE DOMAIN OVER WHICH MOYNIHAN reigns is an uncomfortably chilly, muted green chamber where 20 white men sit in a semicircular dais and face a table of witnesses under the glare of television lights.

Since September, a procession of experts--ranging from Hillary Rodham Clinton to her nemeses in the medical and insurance industries--have argued their views here in 31 hearings on health-care reform. This, in many ways, was the Socratic Moynihan at his best and his most comfortable. As he explored the failings of the current system, the chairman also made sure that his committee took note of the fact that American medicine has a record of breathtaking achievements as well--a single set of anti-peptic acid drugs, for example, that has dramatically reduced the need for surgery. And at almost every session, he found a way to work in the most famous advice attributed to Hippocrates, the Greek physician of antiquity: First, do no harm.

One of the final hearings was on May 10, and fittingly, it brought the chairman back to the point where, for him, the entire debate had started. The subject was deinstitutionalization and mental health, and, for the occasion, Moynihan had taken the gold frame down from its spot of honor on the wall of the conference room, and brought it into the chamber.

Waving it above his head, he launched again into his tale of remorse--"a reminder of the cost of good intentions. To make great changes is to invite large disturbances. We would hope we would be a lot more careful in this health legislation than we were a generation ago.”

Tellingly, Packwood and one other Republican were the only Finance Committee members there to hear it. Not a single Democratic colleague had bothered to show up. They probably knew he would start in again about that pen.