Godfrey Hodgson, the author of this new biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is admittedly a long-standing, close friend of his subject. This is at once the major strength and major weakness of this portrait of the senior Senator from New York. On the one hand, Hodgson has enjoyed unprecedented access to Moynihan in writing this book, which stops just short of being an official biography, making the book extremely revealing. Yet as an intimate of Moynihan's, the author cannot seem to achieve the distance and perspective which objectivity demands.
Nonetheless, anyone interested in American or New York politics--or contemporary American history--is bound to find this an absorbing volume. After all, Moynihan's friends and associates have ranged from Averell Harriman to Henry Kissinger, from Arthur Goldberg to Richard Nixon, from Lyndon Johnson to Irving Kristol. He has exercised power in locales as varied as Albany, the U.S. Labor Department, the Nixon White House, the United Nations, New Delhi, and the U.S. Senate. Perhaps more than most political biographies, this is not just the story of one man but a political and intellectual history of the period in which his career flourished.
Yet the author's biases are apparent. He strives mightily to reconcile and explain Moynihan's political inconsistencies, styling him at one point an "orthodox centrist liberal"--whatever that means. (It strikes me as an oxymoron.) He tries to find consistent strains in what seems to me to have been a political career characterized most of all by opportunism, if not outright caprice. He tries to explain away Moynihan's alcohol problem, while reporting that his staff employs the euphemism that the Senator is "with the Mexican ambassador" to explain that he is enjoying Tio Pepe, his favorite dry sherry. He justifies the Senator's long-standing feud with the liberal wing of his party in light of some early slights at the hands of liberal New Yorkers, referring at one point to "the authoritarian left," an interesting turn of phrase in the wake of Gingrich and Co.
There are a number of obvious errors in the book. The author notes that in 1953, the Democrats had been out of power in New York State for 20 years, ignoring the fact that Democrat Herbert Lehman served as Governor through 1943, following FDR and Al Smith. He refers to the Comptroller General of the U.S. as a "Treasury official," although the C.G. is in charge of the U.S. General Accounting Office, a Congressional agency, not part of the Treasury Department. He suggests that President Clinton pledged that he would "vote for" the welfare reform legislation he eventually signed, missing the fact that America is not a parliamentary democracy.
Despite the weaknesses, this is a beguiling biography, which is for the most part well written, and sure to captivate anyone with more than a passing interest in U.S. politics. I do not regret for a minute the time I spent reading it.