A short reading list for the congressional Class of 2010

Americans cast their ballots Tuesday in House, Senate and statewide races.
By Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 10:06 PM

To the Newly Elected Members of the 112th Congress:

Congratulations on your victory. No matter that this was the most expensive, the nastiest, the most divisive and possibly the least-substantive national election in recent memory; the voters of our troubled republic have spoken. Our glorious Constitution now bestows on you the honor and responsibility of directing the affairs of our country and repairing our dysfunctional national government.

As you head out on your post-election vacation, I urge you to leave behind the compendium of poll-tested talking points and that well-meaning but largely irrelevant manual prepared for you by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Instead, I suggest you simply take along the newly published compendium of the letters of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Harvard man who served four presidents and four terms in the U.S. Senate representing New York. This one volume, edited lovingly by his friend and former New York Times writer Steven Weisman, will tell you everything you need to know about creating a successful and satisfying life in government and politics.

The first thing that will strike any reader in 2010 is the seriousness of purpose that Moynihan brought to his work, the civility and intellectual integrity of his discourse, and the deep respect he had for the institutions of government. His 40-year crusade to revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House reflected not only a long-standing interest in architecture but a lifelong belief in the "dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability" of the national government. It was Moynihan who first suggested that the country needed a civilian honor on par with those bestowed on military heroes, and it was one of the proudest moments of his life when he himself received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton.

From his letters, however, it is also clear that even by the mid-1960s, Moynihan began to see the first signs of a deteriorating political culture, learning firsthand how easily policy differences could give way to character assassination. Despite a lifelong concern for the plight of the urban poor, his memo to President Lyndon B. Johnson pinpointing the breakdown of the black family structure, and his memo to President Richard M. Nixon urging a period of period of "benign neglect" of divisive racial issues, earned him an undeserved reputation as a racist that he never quite lived down.

After seeing firsthand how the Johnson presidency was brought down by street protests, Moynihan's first memo to President-elect Nixon, in January 1969, urges him to move quickly to heal the deep racial, class and ideological divisions that he argued were undermining national unity and undercutting the legitimacy of government.

A year later, in a resignation letter he never sent to Nixon, Moynihan complains that "the extremes of left and right have joined in a dance of death" around "the presidency and every other institution of order and reason in American society," exploiting society's divisions for "short-term, narrow, shallow purposes."

"The extremists of the left and right need each other, complement each other, strengthen each other," he wrote, creating a symbiotic relationship that threatened "the quality, and ultimately the survival of the American democracy." Forty years later, it is a warning that continues to resonate.

Moynihan must surely be one of the more complicated characters ever to arrive in Washington - a working-class Irishman with patrician airs, a Democrat who loyally served Republican presidents, an intellectual widely scorned by other intellectuals, a liberal distrusted by other liberals and a foreign policy hard-liner who railed incessantly about the CIA's incompetence.

Moynihan's great gift was that he could see how emerging political, social and economic trends were likely to play out before almost anyone else. He was among the first to call for the end of welfare as we know it, to warn of the coming political backlash against affirmative action and to sense the growing alienation of the working class from an increasingly liberal and elitist Democratic Party. He also was among the first to sound the alarm on global warming (in 1969!), predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, foresee the coming ethnic bloodbath in the Balkans and champion the cause of auto safety (he recruited Ralph Nader to Washington during the Kennedy administration). Long before it was conventional wisdom, he called attention to the stagnation in working-class wages and the irrepressible inflation in health-care spending.

Moynihan came to these insights not only through prodigious reading but also through his prolific writing: speeches, books, magazine articles, private correspondence and constituent newsletters filled with personal musings, historical analogies and literary references. Unlike so many of today's members of Congress, who take an almost puritanical pride in how little they partake of the life in the nation's capital, Moynihan loved to share a drink (or three) with influential journalists, bring top scholars to Washington and correspond with the likes of Updike, Niebuhr and Solzhenitsyn.

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