Has teevee land ever seen a man so tickled as Daniel Patrick Moynihan?

As he describes the plight of the American family to Phil Donahue, the senator's knees lock and his shoe tips wag. His bushy brows hump up like two millipedes on a twig, then ascend to his thatchy forelock. When the audience applauds him, Moynihan applauds back. And as the clapping flattens into a roar, his mouth goes pursy, forming a fleshy Irish rose.

His daughter Maura -- late of Harvard and the rock group the Same -- has seen the look before. "Dad's mouth gets like that when he's happy," she says.

After the show, Moynihan lumbers toward the elevator. He is a towering sight -- 6 feet 4 inches -- and surprisingly trim. He is one of those men whose waggy midlife jowls make them seem far heavier than they are.

"Saddle up, children!" he yells tinnily, and the entourage shuffles over to meet him. There is something antique, something mythological about Moynihan. The theater he has become -- the herky-jerky Anglo-speech, the bow tie slightly askew, the tweedy caps and professorial rambles -- they all make him seem vaguely not there, a figure not of the present but of an unreal history, an American Edmund Burke taking dominion on the Hill.

The sources of Moynihan's real satisfactions these days run deep. His New York Senate seat appears safe. As an analyst of American family problems, he is being hailed as an embattled prophet redeemed. Even the publicity ball is rolling pleasantly to his feet. Donahue -- perhaps the most influential book seller in American history -- twice showed Moynihan's book, "Family and Nation," to the cameras. Twice! The senator is even more delighted than the PR woman from Harcourt Brace.

"Well!" he chirps in the elevator. "You can't say that fella didn't try to sell any books!"

The limo ushers Moynihan crosstown to further flattery. The editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica have arranged to bestow medals on the senator and five others for making scholarly work accessible. In the course of a very few minutes Moynihan refers to political theorist R.H. Tawney, physicist Max Planck and other academic immortals. He lobs bons mots like bonbons. And now Moynihan's mouth is blooming again. He is enjoying that uniquely intoxicating sensation: He is talking, and everyone is listening. In his odd pizzicato, he is discoursing obscurely on the universality of scientific experiments -- " . . . and so it will turn blue in Bul . . . gar . . . ee . . . ya and it'll turn blue in Pa . . . ta . . . go . . . nee . . . ya!"

"One thing about my father you should know," Maura Moynihan says. "He loves being senator."

"I couldn't believe it!" Moynihan says, in his Washington office a few days later. "In the elevators people were saying 'Hey! We were watching you on television! We saw you on Donahue!' "

The moment is optimal for Moynihan, too. When he first spoke out on the state of the black family as an undersecretary of labor in the Johnson administration 21 years ago, he cited the problem of single-parent homes as a "tangle of pathology." He caught swift hell for that. The times did not permit such an analysis -- too soon after the civil rights initiatives -- and the attacks on Moynihan were sometimes ugly and cruel. Black leader James Farmer wrote that the Moynihan Report was "the fuel for a new racism," and its data would "turn the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan into a prophet." Moynihan was deeply wounded. He abandoned plans to write a book on the black family:

"I thought, let someone else do that."

Finally, he did write his book. "Family and Nation," which was first delivered as a series of lectures last year at Harvard, shifts somewhat the emphasis of Moynihan's old argument from race to class, and it has been received with almost universal acclaim. Although it is conspicuously lacking for answers and recommendations, Moynihan has once more framed the critical questions on family and poverty. This time there is applause.

"Pat was right all along," says Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). "He set an agenda and stayed with it." "Pat deserves all the acclaim he's getting on this," says Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.). "He was dead right."

"The subject of the family is on the agenda now," says Moynihan, who is hoping that he and his fellow Democrats can pull together a set of coherent proposals for the years ahead. He compares the need for a family policy to the need for basic social welfare programs preceding the years of the New Deal. "And that sort of thing requires preparation, thinking. You know by 1935 if you wanted a Social Security bill, there were people you could turn to who could tell you what it should be. They'd been working on it for 30 years.

"We have behavioral, social and structural problems to deal with and the first step in the legislative process is to protect the few things we do have. Even if the president does raise the subject of the family, he's wrong about what we have to do about it. With the Reagan administration there came to power an official doctrine that you have problems because you tried to do something about them. It's a national tragedy."

The overall Moynihan Myth, the one that he propagates, is one of ideological, liberal consistency. And yet he has shifted his imagery and allegiances radically over his career.

As an aide to former New York governor Averell Harriman in the '50s and to John F. Kennedy and LBJ in the '60s, he was a mainstream Democrat, part regular, part reformer, part broker, part civil rights advocate. As an adviser to Johnson he wrote a crucial speech on poverty in black America. As an adviser on domestic affairs to Richard Nixon and the spokesman for a temporary policy of "benign neglect" toward the tumult in the black urban community, he began forfeiting those liberal credentials. He lost some old friends. Upon his return to Harvard in 1971, he was accorded a dismal attic office and a good many sneers. He even lost one tenure vote before finally gaining a secure post on the faculty.

Moynihan's sympathies -- or lack of them -- stunned some of his more liberal friends. During the Vietnam era he was often more critical of the protesters than of the war -- "I can live with the robber barons, but how do you live with these pathological radicals," he said in 1969.

As President Ford's U.N. ambassador, Moynihan was a swaggering figure, hoisting the nameplate of the United States in pugnacious opposition to much of the Third World. Suddenly he was the Neoconservative of U.N. Plaza, an ally of Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, Public Interest editor Irving Kristol and other converts to the Temple of Toughness. During Moynihan's U.N. career, William F. Buckley's National Review proclaimed him Man of the Year.

After denying for weeks that he would run, Moynihan won his Senate seat by outflanking his Democratic rivals Bella Abzug, Ramsey Clark and Paul O'Dwyer to the right and his Republican rival, incumbent and Buckley brother James, to the left.

He came to the Senate in 1977 as a kind of New York version of Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson -- a liberal on social policy, a hawk on defense and foreign affairs. He brought with him some of Jackson's most militantly neoconservative former aides, among them Elliott Abrams, Chester Finn, Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt. Soon there were furious denunciations of the Carter foreign policy in the office -- the weakness, the weakness! At times the office seemed like the Washington bureau of Commentary.

Almost immediately Podhoretz and others involved in neoconservative organizations such as the Coalition for a Democratic Majority began chatting up Moynihan as a presidential candidate, for in his first five years in office, Moynihan pleased most of his neoconservative allies. His Americans for Democratic Action ratings were 70, 60, 47, 72, 75 -- the numbers of their kind of moderate Democrat. "But Pat started moving in a different direction," Podhoretz says ruefully. With Reagan in office, Moynihan sounded his odd, burbling bugle of opposition. After voting in favor of Reagan's initial round of tax cuts -- "not my finest moment," he says now -- he began taking a more antagonistic approach to the administration.

Opposition has long been his strongest suit. First it was opposition to the Democratic orthodoxy of the '70s; now it's opposition to the conservative orthodoxy of the '80s.

"I've always liked that role," he says.

With liberals Gaylord Nelson, Birch Bayh, Frank Church, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and George McGovern all gone from the Senate, and with the political climate itself shifted to the right, Moynihan suddenly finds himself greatly valued, even by his old ideological enemies. "I feel delighted with the intellectual and political growth of Pat Moynihan," says George McGovern -- who did not win Moynihan's vote in 1972. "Pat's been moving in the right direction. After flirting with all the neos, he's returned to his natural instincts. There's been a maturing process. He grew away from his natural base -- a liberal, Irish Democrat -- and that got him in trouble, I thought. Now he's returned."

In contrast, of course, Moynihan's neoconservative allies are disappointed. The relationship with Podhoretz, which had once been so close, has deteriorated. Abrams (who is Podhoretz's son-in-law), Finn, Shulsky and Schmitt all took posts in the Reagan administration. Not only did they want to serve in the executive branch, they had all drifted rightward from their mentor Moynihan. Tim Russert, Moynihan's political guru, was one of the few who did not enter the administration; after a stint with Mario Cuomo, Russert became a vice president at NBC News.

Moynihan holds fast to what might be called the "I never changed, the world did" theory. "The Democratic Party in the early '70s went very considerably to the left," he says. "There were some of us who didn't, that's all."

Of the term neoconservative, he says, "I didn't like it then and I don't like it now. Why take the honorable word 'liberal' away from people who want it?" And of neoliberal, well, Moynihan would rather resort to visual aids.

"Come, come, I'll show you something in my bathroom."

Moynihan points the way with a forefinger as long and knobby as E.T.'s.

Hanging above the toilet are two framed magazines. There is a Nation cover with the logo, "The Conscience of a Neoconservative." The Nation, obviously, thought Moynihan had no conscience -- the cover drawing shows the senator wearing a holster with a couple of six-shooters and a bullet strap loaded with tiny missiles. The other cover is from The New Republic with a smiling Moynihan under the logo, "Pat Moynihan, Neo-Liberal."

"Well . . . there you see . . . the value of labels."

Like so much drizzle on a hot street, Moynihan's patience evaporates. As far as he is concerned, the subject can be dismissed.

And so he turns his attention to an ornate relief map of New York State that hangs on another wall in the bathroom. His finger wanders from the plains of west New York to the rivers converging in Pennsylvania.

"Well!" he says. "Would you like to see how the Indians got to Pittsburgh?"

Moynihan's mythology of self is a thing to behold. His daughter Maura grew up on it: "the myth of Dad. When we were growing up we'd recount with reverence how he shined shoes in Times Square and became the ambassador to India. We thought it was extraordinary! The American dream. He'd always say, 'This country has been good to me.' "

Moynihan's version of his public life also has a mythological quality.

When he was in the Nixon White House he pushed a liberal Family Assistance Program and tried to get Nixon to read, and emulate, Britain's progressive Tory, 19th-century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. "I gave him books about progressive conservatives," Moynihan says. "After all, half the legislation Reagan is now trying to repeal was enacted under Nixon."

But of Nixon's darker side, Moynihan says he never saw it. "I was half a world away" in India as U.S. ambassador during Watergate. Furthermore, he saw the 1972 election not as a matter of Republican versus Democrat, but of a moderate Nixon versus a far-out McGovern.

But after Scoop Jackson died in 1983, Moynihan never stepped into the breach as the national neoconservative. "When he first got to the Senate I thought he might run for president," says Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). "But not lately. The ambition to do that isn't there."

Moynihan says the presidential talk never came from him. "It should be recorded that no conversation ever took place with me. If there had been I would have said no. I was not interested in that."

Why not?

"I'm very sorry! I think people should have to explain why they think they should be president, not why not. You have to think you'd be a good president. Anyone who thinks that has a lot of explaining to do. If you're of the view that there are people who could do the job better than you, well . . . It's not something I've ever thought of doing. I very much wanted to be a senator. Well, once I got to be one I very much wanted to be one . . . I'm not interested in being an astronaut, or in commanding a nuclear submarine, either. You don't have to explain that. A senator -- that's a useful job."

Moynihan adores the life of a senator, and many of his critics even contend that his shift to the left was a deliberate attempt to keep the favor of New York voters. To prevent a challenge from the left in the 1982 election, Russert went around to various county organizations hyping Moynihan's more liberal positions and his work for the state. In the meantime Russert discovered that the chief threat from the Republican side, former congressman Bruce Caputo, had lied about his military record. Exit Caputo. "We did a little accounting after the election," Moynihan says with glee, "and we found that we won 50 of 62 counties in 1982. I'm the only New York Democrat to do that."

New York political analysts say that Moynihan's opposition in 1988 is bound to come once more from conservative opponents such as Lewis Lehrman.

Since the death of Jackson and the electoral defeat of the late Jacob Javits in 1980, Moynihan has had few close friends in the Senate. He spends time occasionally with Bradley, Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and a few others, but he is something of a Senate loner, an intellectual among politicians. Another Senate loner, Hart, says, "You just don't become a buddy with Pat overnight. Patrick is clearly a prophet, and, frankly, he's not always appreciated. He's one of our few people with a sense of history. Intellectuals are not always appreciated here."

Although he seems to write a serious book nearly every year -- one year on arms control, another on the welfare state -- Moynihan's reputation in the less intellectual senatorial skills -- legislative initiative, cajolery, mixing with the constituents, the dull details of Capitol life -- is middling at best.

Staffers say Moynihan's working days follow a pattern more reminiscent of a 19th-century don than that of a state-of-the-art senator. Often, he has trouble sleeping and will write in the middle of the night. He is grouchy and impatient at work in the morning. "He's impossible most mornings," says a former aide. For two or three hours after lunch, he retreats to his "hideaway" for a nap on the couch or some writing. He follows that with a couple hours more of work at the office in the afternoon. "Moynihan just doesn't have the patience or the passion for all the detail work," says one former aide. "And he's impossible to schedule. A lot of the time he'll be all set to go to a dinner in Buffalo or something and he'll call and say 'I just don't want to go!' And that's it. Russert was always pushing him to do more politically, but he hates it. He's a certain sort of good senator, but in other ways he just doesn't care that much. He takes an almost totally global view of his job, and the hell with the rest of it."

Occasionally an article -- in, for example, The New York Times Magazine in 1979 -- will mention the persistent rumors about Moynihan and alcohol. (Russell Baker remarked on his reputation as "a convivial imbiber of spirit and grape.") Says Moynihan, "I go home and have two or three drinks with my wife and split a bottle of claret." Asked directly if drinking was for him a problem in any way, Moynihan is quiet for a while, then says slowly, "No. I hope not. Here I am, 59 years old . . . without a day's break since 1965 or 1964. A steady life -- one wife, three kids, three mortgages."

Says Russert, "I've heard that stuff and generally it's from people who are either jealous or oppose him. As a senator or a campaigner he's always been 100 percent."

If Moynihan has any political problems they are rooted in the contrast in style and substance between him and the junior senator in his state, Alfonse D'Amato, a Long Island Republican who displaced Javits. When he first came to the Senate, Moynihan could not have seemed any less "local" than his colleague Javits. But with the advent of D'Amato, Moynihan seems an almost wholly national and international figure. D'Amato rarely misses a ribbon cutting.

Moynihan is cool to D'Amato. During one late-afternoon interview, a piercing buzzer in his office summons Moynihan to the floor for a vote. On his way out of the chamber after the vote, D'Amato passes by. Moynihan exchanges greetings with a few other senators -- "Well, well, hello, hello!" -- but he and D'Amato do not even acknowledge each other.

They both walk to the Senate subway, first D'Amato, then Moynihan. They are waiting for the little Senate trains to shuttle them back to the Russell Building, but they wait at separate tracks.

No waves, no hellos.

Moynihan's public insouciance masks a great deal of personal pain and trial in his life.

The myth is that it doesn't hurt.

He is the son of Margaret Phipps, the daughter of a successful trial attorney, and John Moynihan, a peripatetic newspaperman who preferred the bottle and the track to family responsibility. John Moynihan worked as a publicity man at RKO for most of Moynihan's childhood, and the family lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens.

But one day, when Pat was 11, John Moynihan bolted the family. Moynihan, his mother, his sister Ellen and his brother Michael had to move to cold-water flats in Yorkville and the Upper West Side. They moved a lot to take advantage of the one month's free rent offered by some New York landlords. Pat shined shoes around Times Square.

Moynihan, who has been married to the former Elizabeth Brennan since they were aides in the Harriman administration three decades ago, seems not to have talked about his difficult childhood even with his three grown children. "He never discussed it all when we were kids -- never, never," Maura Moynihan says. "I never saw a picture of John Moynihan and I know nothing about him. Just that he was supposed to be witty and talented."

Moynihan's economic fortunes continued to fluctuate throughout his adolescence. After several years of financial struggle, his mother married again and the family moved to the suburbs. After that marriage disintegrated the Moynihans moved in with relatives sw,-2 sk,2 in Indiana. The family later moved back to New York, where Margaret Moynihan opened a bar in the Hell's Kitchen area when Moynihan was 20. Moynihan's old campaign biography says he was "raised in New York City's Hell's Kitchen District," a phrase that was later dropped.

Moynihan graduated first from Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem and was voted the most popular boy in his class. Before entering City College in the fall Moynihan worked on the Hudson River docks, first as a stevedore, then as a checker. An oft-repeated anecdote from that period in his life is full of swagger:

"A friend told me about the qualifying examination for City College and mainly to prove to myself that I was as smart as I thought I was, I went up and took the test. I remember playing it very tough -- I swaggered into the test room with my longshoreman's loading hook sticking out of my back pocket. I wasn't going to be mistaken for a sissy college kid."

Moynihan's account is part truth, part mythology. Even Doug Schoen, who has since become a pollster for Moynihan, wrote in his mainly adoring biography, "Pat," that Moynihan was admitted to college on the strength of his grades in high school. "Moynihan may have confused his admission to City College with his entrance into the Navy officer's training program," Schoen wrote.

Moynihan's Navy training took place at Middlebury College in Vermont, and it was there that he began to see the way the upper half lives. He began meeting boys from Andover and Exeter. At Tufts, where he finally earned his B.A. and before shipping off for a stint in the Navy, the education had a similar class tone.

All of Moynihan's hurts, his careening from one place and economic situation to another, were suspended and eased in 1950 when he won a Fulbright scholarship to study at the London School of Economics. With money coming in from both the scholarship and the GI Bill, Moynihan loved the situation:

"I was living abroooad . . . and had plenty of monnnney and had no! thing! to! do! There were no classes, there were no exams."

Sander Vanocur, now a correspondent for ABC News in Washington, met Moynihan when they were both young and living in London:

"Pat seemed to me the richest man in the world in those days. And one of the happiest. He was so absorbed in the place. He would talk for hours about the doors in Regency architecture, knew everything about it. One day he got me to jump over a fence with him on High Street, Kensington, and sneak into the Holland House where the Whig aristocracy used to meet. He made the place come alive.

"Pat was loved by the English. He was an American -- so out front and full of life."

Moynihan came back to the United States an Anglophile. He is partial to Cockney pub songs such as "The Lambeth Walk," odd British evening slippers, English soaps, colognes, cheeses, mustards and ales. He used to stuff his handkerchief up his jacket sleeve in the British mode, but that mannerism has disappeared.

"When Dad was ambassador to India I was interested in the Hindu era, Mom was interested in the Mogul era and Dad was interested in the Raj," says Maura Moynihan.

A photo of Moynihan reviewing an honor guard of Indian Gurkha soldiers 13 years ago shows the new ambassador wearing a bowler on his pate and a carnation in his lapel. He looks as though he were meeting Mountbatten in Raj heaven.

"But I like Irish things, too," he adds quickly. On his office wall is a landscape by Jack Yeats. "It's a beauty, isn't it?"

Seven years ago in The Nation, Fred Powledge wrote a "journalist's apologia" for a favorable piece he wrote on Moynihan in a 1967 issue of Life magazine.

"I should have caught on when . . . I saw him unlimber an Abercrombie & Fitch fly-fishing outfit, complete with rod, reel, little hat and dry martini, to pursue trout in a mud puddle," Powledge wrote. "He was, I realized then, a cartoon, not the real stuff."

Moynihan, for all his theater, is nothing at all like a cartoon. The Anglophile reviewing Gurkhas, the department-store fisherman, the stammering academic pol, these are cartoons. And funny ones, too. But in an era of techno-politicians, legislators without flair or intellectual adventure, he is unique on Capitol Hill.

*Moynihan, who was abandoned by his own father, has spent much intellectual energy and political capital working on the deepening problems of single-parent families. And yet he resists discussing the past and the notion that his present work reflects a private hurt:

"Oh, oh, it's not something I talk about very much. I was not abandoned. It was not something that happened, like an automobile accident; it was stretched out, it took place over time . . . It was not a traumatic event.

"It wasn't a traditional breakup. The husband wasn't functioning very well, and just went off. It was more in the nature of a divorce. The problem now is the institutionalization of a single-parent home."

After a conference on the underclass and family earlier this month in New York, Moynihan had some time to kill before flying back to Washington. He spent it going door to door at a welfare hotel near Union Square. He was struck by the sight of 12-year-old girls holding their own babies, and the human problems represented in those images.

"The truth is, we are in a lot of trouble," says Moynihan. "And if there's one thing basic to all this it's that you cannot experiment with social policy. You can't do that with citizens. When you cite a problem, and ask the questions, you'd better hope the answers are the right ones. People's lives are at stake!"