Master Builder

The New Republic

You have read:

0 / 8

free articles in the past 30 days.

Already a subscriber?

Log in here

sign up for unlimited access for just $34.97Sign me up

APRIL 14, 2003

Master Builder

About a month ago, I received from Pat Moynihan a very well-produced
little book titled Vision+Voice, subtitled Design Excellence in
Federal Architecture: Building a Legacy. No author or editor is
named, but the inside cover lists "Daniel P. Moynihan" at the head
of a galaxy of architects, urban designers, and museum directors:
David M. Childs, Henry N. Cobb, Hugh Hardy, Joan Goody, Richard
Meier, Robert A.M. Stern, Moshe Safdie, Susan Henshaw Jones,
Charles Gwathmey, and on and on. What, I wondered, was all this
about? It turned out this was a tribute to Moynihan, who in 1962,
we are told, wrote the "Guiding Principles for Federal
Architecture""a one-page document buried inside a report on Federal
office space." Is this historic document, which is reprinted in the
book, and to which the following contributors pay tribute,
government policy? Not exactly. Was it an executive order signed by
a president, or a regulation adopted by an agency, or a resolution
or law of Congress? None of the above. It is a historic document
that, despite its nonofficial character as an addendum to a report
on federal office-space needs by the then-assistant to Secretary of
Labor Arthur Goldberg, has played a great role in guiding federal
building projects and is remembered, recalled, almost revered, by
architects and urban designers.Along with the little volume came what turned out to be the last
piece Pat published, an op-ed in The Washington Post from February
3, 2003. It is taken from Pat's address to the conference marking
the fortieth anniversary of the "Guiding Principles." In the op-ed,
Pat writes, "The 'Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture' were
proclaimed by President Kennedy on May 23, 1962. They called for a
design 'which is distinguished and which will reflect the dignity,
enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American National
Government. '" Those strong, optimistic words have been often
quoted, but there is an intriguinglet us say, Moynihanianambiguity
there. The words of course were not President Kennedy's but
Moynihan's, but he doesn't say so directlylet President Kennedy
take the credit, and let the words thereby have more weight because
they are the president's. Nor did President Kennedy "proclaim"
anything, at least from other accounts. He saw the report and wrote
something like "OK" on it.

How then did the "Guiding Principles" have the effect they did, how
did they, as Vision+Voice tells us, "capture the imagination of
important decision- makers and ultimately become the rationale for
a new approach to the design of government buildings and public
space"? How come "they are often referenced by architects, design
professionals, and public officials"?

I am led to these reflections not only because I shared with Pat
Moynihan a great interest in architecture and urban design but
because, in the wake of his remarkable career, we are going to
hearas we have heard beforea good number of people tell us that,
despite the range of his ideas and his knowledge, his mastery of
language and his unique style, the phrases he coined that have
become part of the language ("defining deviance down," for example),
"he won't leave anything behind." But the story of the "Guiding
Principles" is a wonderful example of the varied ways in which one
can make a difference, even without landmark legislation.

For some unaccountable reason and even though he did guide some very
important legislation through the Senate and the House (take 1991's
ISTEA the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Actfor
example, which reined in the highway builders, who were prepared to
pave over the nation, by shifting funds to mass transit), Moynihan
is held deficient in major legislative achievement. "For all the
high praise lavished on Moynihan when he announced that he would
leave the Senate," his most recent biographer, Godfrey Hodgson,
writes, "the Washington insiders' view of his performance there was
less than flattering. It was conceded that he was an ornament, 'the
kind of person,' one friend-turned-opponent says, 'the Founding
Fathers would have wanted in the Senate: urbane, witty, scholarly,
wise, eloquent. But what will he leave behind?'" Apparently, being
urbane, witty, scholarly, wise, and eloquent isn't enough. In
particular, ex-staff members of Moynihan's who are now Republicans
(there are a few) I think take this position. Perhaps Moynihan's
achievements in remodeling Social Security and welfare reform don't
count much with them. But, aside from the direct legislative route,
which is so difficult to take to a successful and clear conclusion
in our system of government, there are other ways of wielding power
and influence and shaping the world. The story of the "Guiding
Principles" illustrates some of them.

Ideas imaginatively expressed matter; persistence in advancing them
matters; ingenuity in spreading them, among elites and bureaucrats,
in the newspapers, in journal articles, matters. Being in a
position of power of course also matters. Moynihan advanced his
ideas from many positions of power (such as chairman of the Senate
Finance Committee), but he also turned some formally rather minor
positions (such as assistant to the secretary of labor) and some
rather ambiguous ones (such as domestic adviser to President Nixon)
into positions of power.

It strikes me that this theme of "but what will he leave behind?" is
a way of showing one has a sophisticated appreciation of wheeling
and dealing, the "wasn't Lyndon Johnson [or Tip O'Neill] great?"
syndrome. In some ways they were, and Pat Moynihan was the last to
sneer at these ways of wielding power. He shared with some of his
friends, such as the political scientists Edward Banfield and James
Q. Wilson, an appreciation of the political machine and its
operators. At least it did something, and, on the whole, he thought
what it did was in the interests of the workingman and the poor.

Moynihan was a man of ideas, but he had an empirically based
suspicion of those who were fond of schemes too subtle and too
complex, too theory-based. There were some very complex and heady
proposals made in the 1960s, such as a chain of community-based
psychiatric centers with a range of services demanding many tens of
thousands of skilled professionals. How big is the Oxford faculty,
he once asked me. Why? This scheme to remake psychiatric treatment
requires 20 Oxfords in personnel, he said, and where will we get
them? As Lyndon Johnson's poverty program was being formulated,
with all its various means to empower the poor, Moynihan would say
we could do more to overcome poverty by restoring twice-a-day mail
delivery than with a host of new community organizations. As with
so much Moynihan said, this might bewilder an uninstructed listener,
but sometimes he would spell it out for the slow: It would create
another 50,000 good government jobs.

His language was complexboth because his mind was complex but also
because, as someone in politics who had to think of many
constituencies, from his academic and intellectual friends to the
upstate and West Side voters, he was not averse to having things he
said understood two or three ways, or no way at all, sometimes
leaving people bewildered.

But, if his language was complex, his ideas of government and how it
should operate emphasized simplicity and transparency. His famed
1965 paper on the Negro family, it was assumed by those who never
read it, called for more services to keep families together, more
ingenious social work, more patronization of the poor. Not at all:
While most of it was analytical, what it called for if anything was
more jobsafter all, Moynihan wrote it while he was assistant
secretary of labor, and they were in the job business, not the
social services business. Behind all that complexity of language
and thought was the requirement that government be simple and
clear. That was one reason he opposed the Hillary Rodham Clinton
health plan: The legislation putting it into effect was too long
and too complicated, too many things might go wrong. He would say,
look at the original legislation instituting Social Securitya few
pages. And then look at all the ways we are trying to reform
ithundreds of pages of legislation whose varied implications no one
can fully absorb.

Admittedly, one reason he was against the Clinton health plan was
that it would have reduced the flow of federal funds to the
teaching hospitals that were so important for New York City (and
Boston). That was another kind of simplicity: Defend your
constituents. But he could make sophisticated arguments for why the
teaching hospitals were important for everybody. Would he have done
the same had he been representing Wyoming? Well, he was not. And so
ISTEA made less money available for high-speed roads, more for
urban transportation. After all, one-third of the people in the
country who take public transportation to get to their jobs are in
New York City, and they were Pat's constituents.

Moynihan's greatest efforts were in reforming welfare, our program
for poor mothers and their children, and once again one sees a
penchant for the simple or the apparently simple. The poor need
money, more than services, and so he proposed the Family Assistance
Plan, a guaranteed minimum income for every family. His longest and
most substantial book was The Politics of a Guaranteed Income
(1973), which explained why his plan failed politically. But then
later researchMoynihan was a great believer in research and helped
launch some of the major research enterprises of the last few
decadesrevealed that, even if it had passed, his plan to provide a
minimum household income would not have had the effect in slowing
family breakup that theory (or some theory) projected. In 1978, he
conducted hearings on these important and counterintuitive research
findings to help set the stage for the next wave of reform, which
put more emphasis on direct incentives and services to help the
poor get and hold jobs, which is rather more complicated than
handing out money. Recall that Moynihan began thinking about this
problem at a time when most young mothers were not in the labor
force, and a changing society required different policies. But he
took a strong stand when the work requirements became mandatory with
punitive effects. To him, the children came first, and how could
you just cut them off?

Three of Moynihan's books in the 1990s were sustained arguments on a
single set of foreign policy themes and speak to us today with
particular force. There was On the Law of Nations (1990),
Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics (1993), and
Secrecy (1998). The first argued for the promise and possibilities
of international law while fully aware of its limits when there was
no power to enforce it, and, in a world of sovereign states, there
would always be such limits. Moynihan was cognizant that
international law represented an emergent international moral
standard that could be enhanced and extended and that influence and
power are not wielded only by the ultimate use of force. He was
responding to some of the actions of the Reagan administration,
which had transgressed some long-maintained standards in
international law. (In the 1980s, international law was
transgressed in secret; today, it is mocked in public by the
defenders of the present administration. Some will see this as a
desirable advance in realism and honesty. I don't think Moynihan
would have.)

In Pandaemonium, Moynihan explored the role of ethnic antagonisms in
international relations and the breakup of states. Many were
indifferent to this subject when Moynihan first went to Washington.
He told me that no one at a senior level could be found to attend a
U.N. conference on ethnicity in Ljubljana in the '60s, and it
required going down to his level in the Department of Labor to find
someone willing to represent the United States. He sent from
Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, once part of the multiethnic
Austro-Hungarian empire, the memorable message, "I have seen the
past, and it worked." He was referring most directly to the
architecture but perhaps also, in his Moynihanian way, to other

In both On the Law of Nations and Pandaemonium, the spirit of
Woodrow Wilson hovers over the argument. Wilson is not much admired
today, but Moynihan took a leading role in creating the Woodrow
Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and
that is where he placed his office when he left the Senate. He
thought we could still learn from Wilson despite his failures. He
understood better than anyone that ethnic identification had let
loose enormous problems for the maintenance of multiethnic states.
We had benefited from the ethnic tensions that led to the breakup
of the Soviet Union. But we were also endangered by the
multiplicity of states, some in a condition of serious disorder,
that emerged from it. Moynihan was more farsighted than anyone else
in seeing that ethnic tensions were weakening the Soviet Union, and
he was brilliant in exposing with ordinary common sense the
tendency of the CIA and other intelligence agencies to overestimate
the power, wealth, and stability of the Soviet Union.

He deplored the spread of security precautions in Washington and the
ham- handed and ugly way in which we defend our public buildings.
For 40 years, he had bulldoggedly maintained and guidedfrom various
positions low and high, and by way of many and varied bureaucratic
manifestations through seven presidenciesthe rebuilding of
Pennsylvania Avenue. Not a full successwhat in life is?but
certainly a remarkable achievement in a society and political
culture in which it is hard to do anything on a grand scale except
build roads and wage wars. In his dismay at the spread of the
bollards and bulwarks and security precautions in buildings, his
appreciation of an open society came together with his passion for
a humanely built environment. "What has he left behind?" one asks.
Well, there is Washington's Union Station, rebuilt and restored
through his efforts, for one. And Pennsylvania Avenue. And, in New
York, the restored Customs Building and, in time, a new Pennsylvania
Station. And, in Buffalo, Louis Sullivan's saved Guaranty Building.
One way of saving it was for Moynihan to put his west New York
state office into it. Let us not underestimate this when there was
possibly not one other member of Congress who knew who Louis
Sullivan was and why the Guaranty Building, a model for how
architects could manage the new form of the tall office building,
was important.

Well, all that may be ornament (which I would not depreciate), but,
beyond that, he gave us the model of a statesman and politician
dealing with serious matters, respectful of research, considerate
of what the university and academy have to contribute to our
understanding, and willing to return again and again to intractable

In that last op-ed in The Washington Post, Moynihan criticized the
apparently boundless extension of our security precautions and sadly
described patrons of the Martin Luther King Library, near his
Washington apartment building, "putting their book bags through a
scanner, being wanded and watched by armed 'library police.'" He
would have had much to say about our current circumstances, and, as
a former assistant put it, in doing so he would have been "witty,
scholarly, wise, eloquent." There's not much of that in government
today, and would we not be better off if there were? Certainly, some
brightness has gone out of the lives of all of us who knew him.

By Nathan Glazer

share this article on facebook or twitter

print this article


You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.

Back to Top