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The Nation: Moynihan Writes Again

4 minute read

During his two years as a presidential aide, Daniel Patrick Moynihan became known—both in and out of the White House—as the most brilliant and prolific memo writer in the Administration. He churned out a series of pungent, readable and controversial messages to President Nixon before returning in January to a teaching post at Harvard. Academic life has not stilled Moynihan’s instincts: not long ago he sent a private letter to Nixon chiding the Administration for its reputation of insensitivity toward personal rights. The missive so impressed the President that he circulated it among his top officials, from where it emerged last week.

Moynihan opened by reporting on some recent conversations with businessmen: “Let me take the occasion to repeat my comment about what I feel to be the serious inattention of the Administration to its reputation with respect to civil liberties and to the general question of ‘repression.’ Since leaving Washington, I have spent a good deal of time talking to businessmen. (Picking up some consulting fees!) I have met with the boards of the top management of the half a dozen largest banks around the country, with the equivalent groups in the dozen or so largest mutual funds, with an island (Jamaica!) full of Midwestern meatpackers, cereal manufacturers and such, and quite a number of heavy industry types, the latter at a conference called by the Columbia School of Business.

“I have been astonished—that is the word—at their hostility to the Administration. More than any other thing, what seems to concern them most is the belief that the Justice Department in particular and the Administration in general is intent upon the diminishment of civil liberties in the nation, and has already to some extent succeeded. This feeling is intense. As best I can tell, they mostly get this belief from their children, who absorb it in the atmosphere of the elite universities. But they believe their children, and in consequence, detest the Administration.”

Murder. The White House, Moynihan charged, had not responded when opportunities arose to dispel suspicion: “This was why I was so concerned at the time about the charge that the Black Panthers were being exterminated. I could get no one, save [Special Consultant to the President] Len Garment, to see how dreadfully potent a charge this was against you. The charge was being made that your Administration was carrying out a systematic plan of political murder designed to wipe out a political party. The charge was groundless, which I could soon enough establish to my own satisfaction. But what was the response of the Justice Department? In effect, ‘No comment.’ And at the lower levels, a series of hysterical (two meanings intended) statements that this band of six or seven hundred high school dropouts, a few ex-cons and a handful of former OEO employees was plotting to overthrow the state. Good God!”

To Moynihan, there is a reverse logic involved in the Nixon Administration’s reactions: “I think I know what is the matter. I saw it happen over and over again from the fall of 1969, when, as we organized our response to the October peace demonstration being led by decent young men, things began to go wrong for you. The Administration began to ask what would please persons known to oppose the Administration, and then would do the opposite. It is a formula for political failure. One of the things that disturbs me personally about all this is that the nation seems to be unlearning so many of the lessons of the late 1960s, which led to your election in the first place and your brilliant first year in office. Really dreadful things occurred when my party was in power but, one by one, your party has, as it were, assumed responsibility for these things.”

Concludes Moynihan: “You will recall I came down to Washington to work for you deeply concerned about the stability of the nation. I remain concerned. Vast changes have been made for the better. But in an odd way, appearances are worse.”

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