One of the nice things about his new book, "Family and Nation," is that Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who, more than most of us, has the right to boast about his prescience, largely resists the temptation.
Instead, he takes advantage of our present national interest in the deteriorating black family to remind us of what he was saying 20 years ago (and what a lot of other thinkers have said before and since): that family stability is so important to the health of the nation that we had better start looking at our national policies in terms of their impact on the family.
"From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century eastern seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles," Moynihan said in 1965, "there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future -- that community asks for and gets chaos.
"Crime, violence, unrest, disorder -- most particularly the furious, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure -- that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved."
How can it be that a man of such profound insight should find himself so thoroughly on the defensive from attacks by black leaders? I suppose it was partly because they thought he placed too much emphasis on statistics and too little on the racism that played a major role in creating those statistics. But the numbers themselves were arresting: 9.2 percent unemployment for black males, more than twice the white rate.
We know now that he was right to sound the alarm at what joblessness was doing to families, and to black families in pcular. But even today we are only starting to grasp the particular damage spawned by black male joblessness. And I'm not sure that some of Moynihan's observations would be any more welcome today than they were 20 years back.
"Early on," he wrote then, "I had sensed the disparate impact (federal manpower-training and antipoverty) programs seemed to have on male, as against female, opportunity. Visiting a training site, one would encounter men on a dim shop floor banging away at automobile fenders, women in fluorescent-lit classrooms learning to operate business machines.
"This pattern carried over into at least some of the poverty programs. In Project Head Start -- one of the most promising efforts to bring hope to slum children -- we were even so paying women (qualified, professional women, to be sure) up to $9.20 an hour to look after the children of men who couldn't make $1.50 an hour." The women's movement might have some trouble accepting the implications of that observation.
Were we unable to welcome Moynihan's warning for the simple reason that, coming from a white man, it sounded like an indictment of the black family, rather than a call for its rescue? Certainly Moynihan wasn't the only one who saw the problem.
Howard University's E. Franklin Frazier, writing in 1950, had argued that "the widespread family disorganization among Negroes has resulted from the failure of the father to play the role in family life required by American society" and that "the mitigation of this problem must await those changes in the Negro and American society which will enable the Negro father to play the role required of him."
Similar assessments had come from Kenneth Clark and, later, Martin Luther King.
Theirs is now the conventional wisdom, as is the notion, propounded a few years back by Michael Novak, that impoverished families eventually suffer damage that cannot be cured by income alone. But their call for a national "family policy," as Moynihan and Novak understand, is not so much a remedy as a criterion against which remedies must be judged.
If the special attention lately given the plight of the black family is expanded to include the white family, which is also far less stable than it once was, it might help us to understand, right across political lines, the crucial importance of strengthening the American family.
As Moynihan put it: "The prospect that the needs of the families might be the means for bringing liberals and conservatives together on matters of policy is intriguing and real."