Kennedy, Moynihan and the Lost Nobility of Public Service

November 22, 2013

[My good friend Mark Patterson, who served for four years as chief of staff in the Treasury Department under Tim Geithner, is a former senior staffer in the Senate, where he got his start working for Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Today's anniversary has inspired Mark to write an essay about his old boss and JFK, and it's a great treat to be able to post it here on the A-blog.]

By Mark A. Patterson

My second birthday was three weeks away when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  My mother, a Kennedy admirer who was deeply affected by the event like so many others, sat me on her knee to watch as much of the television coverage of the aftermath as I would sit still for.  I remember none of it, of course.  But growing up in the shadow of that shattering national tragedy, I was indoctrinated (by my parents as well as the media) in the seemingly endless mysteries that emanated from Dallas, as well as in the Camelot ethos, which became so powerful and compelling after that dreadful day.

I think I have seen at most five photographs of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency.  I’m not sure I could identify his voice on an audio recording.  Yet I have seen – as we all have — hundreds of images, if not more, of JFK and life in the Kennedy White House, not to mention the familiar footage of his inaugural address; his speeches in Ireland, Paris and Berlin; and his archly witty, insouciant repartee at White House press briefings.  And of course every horrifying second of Abraham Zapruder’s Super 8 home movie, including the godawful moments when part of the president’s skull explodes onto the trunk of the limousine, retrieved frantically in the next frames by his wife, who is then pushed back into her seat by Secret Service agent Clint Hill.  You’ve seen that film a million times, but watching it again in slow motion again today will still make you gasp and wince.

All of these images are engrained in our memories, but what stuck with me over time was the call to serve (“Ask not…”) and the fact that JFK managed to make public service not only noble, but cool.  So, two decades after his death, I found myself working for one of Kennedy’s loyal disciples, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, by then a United States senator who (with his wife Elizabeth) had worked on Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and who served in the Kennedy administration as an Assistant Secretary of Labor.

Moynihan’s childhood hero was Lou Gehrig, but I don’t think he would have been comfortable acknowledging that he had a hero as an adult.  Even so, there is no doubt in my mind that Kennedy was Moynihan’s hero.  Moynihan devoted a huge amount of effort over the course of the next 40 years to the redesign of the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, an assignment he had first drawn during his time in the Kennedy Labor Department.  He was keenly aware that Jacqueline Kennedy had asked Lyndon Johnson to see the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue through to completion because it was something President Kennedy cared about.  Moynihan gave himself the assignment to stay with the project because he loved the work, but I know he also felt it was his way of keeping faith with his slain hero.

Moynihan kept up a long friendship and correspondence with Jackie, whose letters, written in a flowing hand on robin’s egg blue stationary engraved with her Fifth Avenue address, arrived periodically at Moynihan’s Senate office.  He would write to keep her updated on the progress of work on the Avenue, and she would write back to thank him, effusively, for his dedication to the cause over so many years.  As Moynihan’s young aide at the time, I was in awe of this correspondence.  Reading it felt like my own personal window into the “brief shining moment” of Camelot.

It is not widely known, but after Kennedy was shot, Moynihan tried to persuade anyone in Washington who would listen that Oswald should be taken into federal custody.  Moynihan may have been the only person in the government to have recognized that the Dallas police department was not up to the task of protecting Oswald.  Conspiracy theories began to swirl immediately after the assassination, and Moynihan understood that if something happened to Oswald, a conspiracy could never be disproved.  Moynihan was 36 at the time, and he was already part of an elite social circle that included leading journalists and other government officials.  But as an Assistant Secretary of Labor, he lacked enough influence to get the Justice Department’s attention, at least in the chaos of that moment.

He did make his mark on the history of that weekend, though, and characteristically, it was with his gift for turning a phrase.  In a TV interview on Sunday, Nov. 24, he lamented, “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.  I guess we thought we had a little more time.”  Moynihan paused, then said, “So did he.”  Moynihan’s other memorable line from that weekend, as E.J. Dionne noted this week, came in response to his friend, the legendary Mary McGrory, who said, “We’ll never laugh again.”  Moynihan replied “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again.  It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

I went to Dallas with Moynihan once, in the late 1990s.  He was giving a speech in a big convention hotel somewhere out in the city’s suburban sprawl.  When we got there he said, “Don’t waste your time listening to me ramble on today – go see the School Book Depository.  I want you to see it.  You’ll learn something.”  So I went, and I saw what he wanted me to see:  that the distance from Oswald’s perch at that sixth floor window to Kennedy’s car was not far at all.  Standing there, I felt I could almost throw a rock that far.  Oliver Stone made it out to be an impossible feat of marksmanship, but all you have to do is go there to know it was, depressingly, not a difficult shot at all.

Whether Moynihan ever felt young again, I don’t know.  He was in his late 50s when I joined his staff, not much older than I am now.  He was still vigorous, but certainly not young.  Yet his passion for public service and his abiding belief —  rooted deeply in his Kennedy Administration experience — that serving your country can be a noble calling, never ebbed.  He revered the Senate and the other institutions of our government.  Even in his 70s, after knowing and working with nine different presidents, he considered it a big deal to go to the White House.  He signed letters to presidents of both parties with the word “Respectfully” (a practice that was once standard but now rarely seen.)  He held his staffers to high standards of decorum and integrity, and reminded us often that us we were privileged to work in the Senate.  Whenever we faced a difficult policy choice, Moynihan would say, “Fellas, President Kennedy said:  ‘To govern is to choose.’  So let us choose.”

I was a member of President Obama’s transition team, and I can attest that for a time, his election reawakened many Americans to the attraction of public service.  The transition offices were flooded with people who were inspired by this new young president and wanted to come to Washington to make a difference.  Yet, regrettably, the idealism of that moment faded.  It was no match for the relentless (and well-funded) chorus of people who believe, as Reagan said, that “government is not the solution to the problem, government IS the problem.”  As it turns out, it’s much easier to appeal to public cynicism about government than it is to motivate citizens to act — to get them to actually do something about society’s problems.  As we all know, an embarrassingly large number of Americans can’t even be bothered to vote.

I think this failure of idealism comes with high costs.  As Moynihan liked to say, “If you have contempt for government, you will get contemptible government.”  Last month, that contempt manifested itself in a shutdown of the U.S. government, and in some all-too-serious threats to cause a first-ever default on America’s good credit.  Daniel Patrick Moynihan would have been appalled.  So too, I suspect, would John F. Kennedy.  But I also think that, if they were alive today, both men would be undaunted.  They would still believe that government can be a force for good, and that patriotic people of good faith can still make a difference.  They would see no other choice than to redouble our efforts to fashion a more perfect union, no matter how hard it seems, or how long it takes.

Mark A. Patterson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.  He was an aide to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan from 1984-1988 and 1993-1999.  He was chief of staff at the Department of the Treasury from 2009-2013.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · November 22, 2013