NEW YORK -- Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan presided one day last week over a discussion of ways and means to save Rupert Murdoch's New York Post from the litter basket that so alarmingly yawns for it.
Moynihan served this gloomy feast with all the graces of his custom as caterer; but its meats had an inescapable air of the funeral-baked. These are days when we need only hear that a newspaper has taken sick to suspect that it is soon to die; and that inference becomes a certainty whenever public men gather around the patient's bed with nothing to offer except invocations to the good Lord to deliver us from this latest peril to freedom and variety in the marketplace of ideas.
I am, I hope, too seasoned a victim of life's vicissitudes not to know that, when a politician comes to my work premise with his mournful countenance and his prayer for its preservation as sacred vessel of the First Amendment, the last rites are here and I had best reach for my employment resume.
Its status as holy writ aside, the First Amendment's supreme purpose for myself is to provide a job for me and as many of my friends and, for that matter, my enemies as it can.
This may seem an irrelevant and even low concern for those who say that Rupert Murdoch is a disreputable fellow and that his silence would be no loss and might be a profit to the public tone. I cannot meet that argument with the proper detachment. Murdoch once hired me when there were even fewer other bidders for my services than there seem to be for the Post at this juncture. Signing on with him was a bit like shipping out on the Staten Island ferry with, say, Long John Silver as captain.
He was, all the same, immensely enjoyable to cruise with; and I went over the side with unaltered affection and only slightly adulterated admiration. He runs his papers to entertain both his readers and his own impulses for mischiefs not always unmalicious.
The entertainment of one's audience is one of the more commendable of aspirations, having been good enough for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and therefore more than good enough for the likes of Murdoch and myself. And he did it enliveningly enough to have contributed no little to the gaiety of the city. If the Post is to be buried, it will sit in the memory as a cherished fragment of our folklore.
Entertaining oneself with the delights of mischief is not invariably as harmless. One of Murdoch's charms is his almost unlimited capacity for the outrageous; his style is ''cut him if he stands still, and shoot him if he runs''; and, as spectacle, he can be as exhilarating as he is fearsome. His problem is that the enemies he made were just as savage as he and more patient about waiting out the chance at his exposed back.
He had counted, I surmise, on putting in the fix with the Federal Communications Commission and keeping both his paper and his television station; and it did not occur to him that those he had offended were as pitiless in their mordant way as he in his exuberant one and that Sen. Edward Kennedy could also put the fix in with the Senate. And now he very likely has to leave; and there is no imagining any buyer inclined to take his place, because the Post was the plaything of the last visible artifact of the self-willed eccentricities of the press lords of old.
I was lingering 20 years ago through the twilight of the World-Telegram and Sun with the politicians chanting vespers for the First Amendment, and the phone rang, and it was New York State Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz. I braced myself to record a new piety; but all he had to say was that, if I had fellow workers still looking for a job, he had vacancies in Consumer Affairs that might tide two of them over the summer.
Louis Lefkowitz survives still brightening our days; but he is the one politician I am sure will have his reward in heaven. For he had understood that the First Amendment is not just an abstraction and that, when a newspaper breaks on the reef, there are sailors and good sailors clinging desperately to the flotsam.