Senator's Senator

There have been few great public intellectuals in the Senate in recent years. The chamber has more than its share of show horses, of course. It has workhorses, too. But very few men and women stand out for their ability to shape and move the nation's debate forward based on intellectual merit. Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) was one of those senators.

Moynihan died at the age of 76 yesterday, and his colleagues wasted no time in praising him. "Whenever he spoke I listened closely, because I knew I would always learn something from him," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). "He was a true renaissance man who put action behind his diverse interests, from protecting the sanctity of the American family to preserving historic art and architecture to restoring Pennsylvania Avenue as America's 'main street' to saving Social Security for future generations." Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who worked with Moynihan on the Senate Finance Committee, called him "a giant among political leaders."

It's not unusual for senators to issue glowing remarks after one of their colleagues dies, but often such praise rings hollow. That's not true in this case. Moynihan enjoyed the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle because he thought about issues -- such as the importance of encouraging strong family ties and the Soviet Union's collapse -- before they reached a critical mass in the public debate. Besides serving four terms in the Senate, he worked for four presidents (John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford), wrote or edited 18 books, and taught classes at Harvard University. Even after leaving office in 2000, he was co-chairman on the president's Social Security commission.

Perhaps it was because he worked closely with presidents that he wasn't afraid to criticize leaders when he thought they were wrong. When President Reagan pushed spending cuts in 1981, Moynihan noted, "We have undone 30 years of social legislation in three days." When President Clinton pushed welfare reform through, he said, "Shame on the president." Moynihan also opposed Clinton's effort to pass a line-item veto, knowing that it would weaken the constitutional system of government and Congress' powers.

Moynihan wasn't afraid to criticize his party either. He said liberal policies and rhetoric weren't doing enough to advance equality for blacks. He was one of the harshest critics of Clinton's health-care plan. (Nevertheless, Moynihan supported the plan's architect, Hillary Clinton, when she ran to succeed him.) And Moynihan said Democrats should "make alliances with conservatives" who shared their concerns. But while this disloyalty angered many Democrats, Moynihan showed he was constantly thinking about issues and how best to solve them. He moved from left to right to left again in public life, a rare thing in American politics. Republican and Democratic lawmakers listened to him, and his constituents sent him back to Washington with comfortable margins.

In an age where many lawmakers mistake volume for strength of argument, Moynihan never did. He was a quiet man who wore bow ties and wasn't too concerned about his appearance. Unlike other senators who write books only to boost their presidential ambitions, Moynihan wrote nine books as senator because he understood the issues -- and his works drew the attention of important policy thinkers as a result. He was prescient, too, declaring in his 1990 book, On the Law of Nations, that the United States should not invade or declare war against other countries simply because it has the resources to take action. If only President Bush had heeded those thoughts about Iraq.

Part of the reason Moynihan was so passionate about the important role families play in society was because of his own childhood: His father abandoned the family when Moynihan was still young, leaving the former senator's mother to raise her children alone. He knew about the need for revitalizing urban architecture because of the time he spent growing up in New York City. Moynihan's mentor in the Senate was Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), another lawmaker who had a difficult upbringing but has managed to earn the respect of his colleagues through his intellectual breadth.

When Moynihan was leaving office, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) called him a "senator's senator." He was. It's a loss to the nation that we won't learn anything more from him.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.