In the summer of 1965, the Watts riot and the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam destroyed the mood of triumphant liberal comity that was supposed to be the foundation on which the solution to the crisis in the urban ghettos would be built. The first sign that something had gone profoundly wrong came in the weeks following Watts, when the White House released a report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Moynihan, Lyndon Johnson’s assistant secretary of labor for policy, had practically invented the role of the social welfare intellectual in government—his job had no operating responsibilities, so he could devote all his energies to generating new ideas. As a thinker, he was not so much profoundly original as he was nimble. He had extraordinary radar that enabled him to pluck significant bits of information out of government reports or scholarly journals and an ability to dramatize his findings in a way that would get the attention of high government officials.

The roots of Moynihan’s report lay in a book called Slavery, published in 1959 by a young historian named Stanley Elkins. During the years after World War II, historians were just beginning to portray slavery as brutal, rather than benign and paternalistic. Elkins, working in the long shadow of the seminal work in this line, Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution, wanted to darken the picture of slavery even further by showing that it had so devastated African-Americans as to have reduced them to a state of dependency. His evidence was that slaveholders among the Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, had portrayed slaves as being childlike, but he didn’t really try to prove this assertion, only to offer an explanation supporting it; even the most liberal white historians of the day believed that there had been no such thing as a genuine, strong, African-American slave culture. Elkins compared the effect of slavery on blacks to the infantilization that Bruno Bettelheim had noted in the Jewish inmates of Nazi concentration camps.

When Slavery was published, it got respectable reviews and sold at a rate of 400 copies a year. After four years, it abruptly started to catch on. Nathan Glazer, Moynihan’s friend and co-author, reviewed Slavery in Commentary and then gave Moynihan a copy; it became one of Moynihan’s discoveries, and he began to pass it around Washington. Besides having the appeal that a dramatic new argument always had for Moynihan, Slavery served his political need to justify new social programs run by the Labor Department. “Why?” asks Elkins. “It provided a historical formula that was attractive to northern liberals: Ours was a particularly harsh form of slavery; we had a responsibility to correct it.” It was especially important at that moment for liberals to drive home Elkins’s point. All through the civil rights movement, liberals were able to argue that although they were supporting a lot of legislation aimed at helping blacks, the overall goal was simply to provide blacks with the same legal rights as everyone else; the second wave of racial reforms, aimed at the North—not just the war on poverty, but also affirmative action—had to be justified on the grounds that blacks deserved help from the government above and beyond what everyone else got.

Moynihan had already, with “One-Third of a Nation”—a report on the growing number of young people who couldn’t pass the armed forces induction test—written one sensational document based on what he knew about the problems of the ghettos, and it had failed to loose an avalanche of social programs. He needed new ammunition. Also, he was involved in complex career machinations that a stunning new report might serve. In the fall of 1964, he had campaigned for Robert Kennedy in New York, and Lyndon Johnson, who hated Kennedy, had become predictably furious. Some masterstroke might repair Moynihan’s relations with the White House. At the same time, Moynihan was contemplating a run for the presidency of the New York City Council in the fall of 1965; being known as the author of a great liberal call to arms might help his chances there.

Too Pat

During the Christmas season of 1964, Moynihan called in his chief assistant, Paul Barton, one morning. “Pat said, ‘We just have to do something,'” Barton says. “‘We have to be different. We’re not going to get attention to this problem because of the low unemployment rate. We’re going to do a report.'” Moynihan told Barton he wanted to concentrate on the parlous state of the black family. Black out-of-wedlock childbearing had always been very high, and now it appeared to be rising even higher: Nearly a quarter of all black children were now born to single mothers. The standard explanation of this, laid out most convincingly by E. Franklin Frazier and now given additional punch by Elkins, was that slavery had loosened the family bonds of African-Americans. More recently, high unemployment among black men and the welfare system’s provision of benefits only to single mothers were making the male economically irrelevant to the poor black family, and more illegitimacy was the result. In Dark Ghetto, Kenneth Clark had a gloomy chapter on the deteriorating family structure and social fabric in the black slums, called “The Pathology of the Ghetto”; Moynihan picked up on this, too, and had a chapter in his report called “The Tangle of Pathology.”

The work on the report was an all-consuming task in Moynihan’s office. All through January and February 1965, Barton and Ellen Broderick, another of Moynihan’s assistants, were in the office seven days a week, meeting at the end of every day with Moynihan to apprise him of their progress. Toward the end of the job, they came across a statistic that seemed to encapsulate their theory perfectly: The unemployment rate and the number of new welfare cases, which previously had moved up and down in perfect lockstep, had begun to “disaggregate”—unemployment was falling, but welfare cases were rising. (Moynihan, a great reviser of his own history, now says it was the discovery of this statistic that prompted the report—”the numbers went blooey on me,” as he puts it.) Finally Moynihan took a detailed outline from his assistants, wrote the report himself, and brought it to his boss, Willard Wirtz, the secretary of labor.

“I remember the almost physical excitement of reading it,” Wirtz says. “I said, ‘Pat, let’s not use this until we can suggest what to do about it.’ It was very long on detail about the problem and very short on what to do. He was reluctant—impatient with my suggestions. He wanted to get it out.” Moynihan had ideas about how to solve the problems of the black family—for example, reinstituting twice-a-day mail delivery and thereby creating thousands of new jobs for men at the Post Office, that bastion of black working-class employment. He persuaded Wirtz, though, that proposing any specific policies in the report would only diffuse its impact.

A hundred numbered copies of the report were printed and distributed on a confidential basis around the upper reaches of the government. Richard Goodwin, a bright young man of the Kennedy administration who had stayed on after the assassination to become a speechwriter for Johnson, read it and included a passage about the black family in Johnson’s commencement address at Howard University, delivered in June 1965. Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young of the Urban League read the address and conferred their blessings on it before it was delivered. Moynihan insists that the report’s general release, after Watts, came completely on the initiative of the White House, which needed to satisfy a press corps that was clamoring for some explanation of the riot. But everyone else involved in the report sees the fine hand of Moynihan in its becoming public.

More than most government officials, Moynihan had a pride of authorship and of intellectual discovery that would have made it painful for him to know that he was not getting full credit for an important breakthrough. Just as Johnson needed to pass legislation to prove his own worth, Moynihan needed to be known as an original thinker. Because he was too impatient for the grind of academic research, his oeuvre at that point was quite thin; his chapter on the Irish in Beyond the Melting Pot was by far his best-known work, and the report on the black family was the kind of major statement that could establish his place in the first rank of American intellectuals. Well before the release of the Moynihan Report, a lengthy, respectful description of it, obviously written with a copy in hand, appeared in The New York Times, the publication most widely circulated in the audience that mattered to Moynihan.

Victimizing the blamer

The press coverage of the Moynihan Report was, in general, exactly what Moynihan had in mind. He was suddenly famous as a racial seer—almost the predictor of the Watts riot. It wasn’t until October that it became clear that in black America the report was regarded as a grave insult. The notion of weakness in the black family struck familiar and uncomfortable chords: It brought to mind all the white southern mythology about unrestrained black sexuality. Because Moynihan had left out the solutions, and because the press had concentrated on the parts of the report that dealt with out-of-wedlock childbearing and ignored the parts about unemployment, it was possible to perceive it as a brief for doing nothing to help the black poor, rather than as a “case for national action,” because the straits they were in were of their own devising. That was exactly the perception of William Ryan, a white psychologist and civil rights activist in Boston, who, after reading an article in Newsweek, wrote a critique of the report that he circulated within the civil rights movement.

Ryan hit upon a brilliant slogan to sum up what he saw Moynihan as doing: “blaming the victim.” His actual argument, later expanded into a book called Blaming the Victim, was something less than finely tuned—for example, he said that out-of-wedlock childbearing merely looked like a black problem because white illegitimacy was underreported—but the slogan was tremendously influential. It recast the whole long-emerging issue of the social ills of the ghettos as a question of whose fault it was, poor blacks’ or white society’s. If it was white society’s fault, then efforts to acculturate the black poor were beside the point, and offensive; Ryan devoted a chapter of his book to attacking the idea of the culture of poverty for being just another form of blaming the victim. In a matter of weeks after the release of the Moynihan Report, it was impossible to convene a meeting of the leading liberal thinkers on the ghettos that would have the friendly tone of the meetings in early 1964 at which the war on poverty was planned. The subtle differences between liberals and left-liberals became, because of the Moynihan Report and the escalation in Vietnam, a bitter split.

It was still some months before Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, speaking at a rally in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, electrified his audience by leading the chant, “We want black power!” In black America, especially among civil rights activists and intellectuals, the Moynihan Report helped to set the stage for that resonant moment. Moynihan, following Elkins, seemed to be denying blacks a usable past. Just at the time when the black privileged classes were struggling to rid themselves of their traditional distaste for the black poor (and by extension for their own blackness), Moynihan was encouraging the public to think of poor blacks as a breed apart. Some civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King, responded to the Moynihan Report in muted tones, but most were furious—even such members of the old guard as Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality.

Young academics, black and white, set to work producing answers to Moynihan. Historians rewrote the history of slavery to emphasize the strengths of the slaves’ families, and sociologists described the female-headed ghetto family as a logical adaptation to conditions there. Black intellectuals used the Moynihan Report as the take-off point for attacking the values of white society in general and of white social scientists and policymakers in particular.

Today the Moynihan Report stands as probably the most refuted document in American history (though its dire predictions about the poor black family all came true). Attacks on it are still being published. The practical effect of the controversy over it was exactly the opposite of what Moynihan intended—all public discussions in mainstream liberal circles of issues like the state of the black family and the culture of poverty simply ceased. Race relations inside the civil rights movement and in the social sciences—supposedly the two main sources of ideas for new racial initiatives directed at the North—continued to worsen.

As for Moynihan, he lost his race in New York and withdrew to academia. He became understandably bitter over the way he had been treated. He, the high government official with the keenest understanding of the problems of the ghettos, the issuer of the direst warnings of the trouble to come; he, who had grown up in a poor, fatherless home himself and knew the pain of it firsthand—he was now being portrayed as, in effect, the Sheriff Clark of the North. “If my head were sticking on a pike at the South West Gate to the White House grounds the impression would hardly be greater,” he wrote in 1966 to Harry McPherson, his closest friend in the upper reaches of the Johnson White House. Moynihan continued to present himself as the champion of a government policy to keep families together—he began calling for the establishment of a Western Europe-style “family allowance” under which every American family, regardless of need would get a government grant—but he stopped mentioning the racial component of the family issue. As he wrote to McPherson, “Obviously one can no longer address oneself to the subject of the Negro family as such.” In a combative moment after his report was published, he contracted to write a book on the black family, but he dropped that project. He began to develop a new preoccupation besides social policy: the danger posed to the American polity by the left, as demonstrated by the reaction to his report. In 1967, he wrote an article for Commentary called “The President & the Negro: The Moment Lost,” in which he blamed the attacks on the report for dissipating the political consensus for healing the ghettos that had built up by the summer of 1965. “The liberal Left can be as rigid and destructive as any force in American life,” he wrote.

Ordinarily, when a government official leaves Washington in a hail of criticism, his inevitable sour musings afterward are interesting but not important. Moynihan’s case was different. His bitterness mattered a great deal, because, unlike everyone he served with in the two Democratic administrations of the sixties, he would be back in power.

The odd couple

Moynihan’s wide range of contacts included many Republicans, and his writing and thinking after the furor over his report on the black family became markedly more conservative; when Richard Nixon’s presidency began, he landed a job on the White House staff as chief advisor on urban affairs. Moynihan retained his membership in the Democratic party, but he saw his future in it as bleak. “I have been an active Democrat, and if they allow me (which alas I doubt) I will be one again,” he wrote to H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, in 1969. His service to Nixon was not, to his mind, a brief bipartisan interlude in his career, but a crucial opportunity to affect the direction of the government. Never before had he even approached the influence he came to have in the Nixon administration, when for a time he truly had the ear of the president. Even during his current career as a Democratic senator from New York, he has had much less influence on policymaking than he did in 1969 and 1970.

It was on the surface an odd pairing, Moynihan and Nixon. Moynihan was entirely preoccupied with the issue of race in the North—his service in three successive administrations made him the one person most continuously involved in formulating the government’s response to the great migration of five million blacks to the northern cities during and after World War II. The political calculations of the Nixon administration didn’t include blacks, whom Nixon had conceded to the Democrats. As Moynihan reminded Nixon in March 1969, he attained the presidency having won probably the smallest percentage of black votes of any president in American history.

Very occasionally Nixon entertained wistful hopes of discovering a contingent of blacks who would vote for him—”30 percent who are potentially on our side,” he once scribbled on the margin of a memo—but on the whole he was far too much the realist to believe that he would ever have a significant black constituency, and he knew that some of his white support came from people who were voting on the basis of their resentment of blacks. “There were subliminal racial messages in a lot of Nixon’s campaigning,” says John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic policy advisor. “It was subtler than code words. It was, ‘I am on your side. I am going to deal with it in a way you’ll approve of.’ I know he saw Johnson’s embrace of blacks as an opportunity. He exploited it.” Ehrlichman says that on two occasions, Nixon told him that he considered blacks to be less intelligent than whites. “He thought, basically, blacks were genetically inferior,” Ehrlichman says.

The real link between Moynihan and Nixon, the obsession they shared, was a deep dislike of the left-liberal political culture that had grown so dramatically in the past three or four years and reached its height of influence during Nixon’s first years in office. Both men had been through, and been deeply wounded by, the experience of being reviled by the Left. As early as 1966, Moynihan was writing to Harry McPherson, “I have the feeling that you fellows, being southern populist types do not understand the northern Left,” and since then his views on the subject had only grown more pronounced. It was easy for Moynihan to conjure up for Nixon a nightmarish picture of Nixon-haters (who were also no doubt Moynihan-haters): Ivy League professors, black-power advocates, social-change-promoting foundation executives, peace-marching Georgetown hostesses, affluent student revolutionaries, and to-the-barricades journalists. While reading a description by Moynihan of Leonard Bemstein’s fundraising party for the Black Panthers in 1970, Nixon wrote a note to himself: “The complete decadence of the American upper-class intellectual elite.” There was a close connection between these people and racial issues: In domestic politics, race was the means they would use to heap abuse on Nixon.

Moynihan, probably more than Nixon, came to see the Left as a threat not just to him personally but to the basic social peace of the country. Unlike Nixon, Moynihan viewed the United States from the vantage point of a position within the intellectual subculture, where the Left was a far more significant force than it was in national life generally, and his natural tendency toward overdramatization made him quick to perceive crises anyway. From where he sat, the state of the nation in those days of Kent State and Cambodia and My Lai seemed extremely dire. In May 1970, he reported to Nixon that the Students for a Democratic Society had threatened to burn down his house in Cambridge and that his family had gone into hiding. (“Even so, I’m sticking here,” he wrote. “I am choosing the interests of the administration over the interests of my children.”) Later that year Moynihan told Nixon that 10-year-old John Moynihan was afraid his father would be assassinated. Moynihan believed that the overarching purpose of the Nixon administration had to be the Lincolnesque one of preserving the union. He wrote to Nixon just before his inauguration: “Your task, then, is clear: to restore the authority of American institutions. Not, certainly, under that name, but with a clear sense that what is at issue is the continued acceptance by the great mass of people of the legitimacy and efficacy of the present arrangements of American society.” This would necessarily be a matter of political self-preservation for Nixon, as well as statesmanship. As Moynihan wrote to Nixon the following year, “To be blunt, the people who brought down Johnson want to bring down Nixon.”

Other people in the administration shared some of Nixon’s hurts and resentments, but Moynihan had a special influence. Like Henry Kissinger on the foreign policy side, he had the ability, rare among high government officials and prized by Nixon, to put the activities of the administration in a sweeping historical context. “He’s so stimulating,” Nixon told Ehrlichman once. Moynihan was brimming with ideas for grand initiatives (a constitutional convention in 1976, a Nixon architectural policy, a new federal Department of Higher Education and Research) and with interesting predictions (feminism as a major social force, a series of urban fiscal crises). He could explain to Nixon the similarities between his situation and that of other distinguished figures he knew Nixon admired: Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, Churchill. Nixon could discuss with Moynihan, as he could not with Haldeman or Ehrlichman, his admiration for Disraeli and for War and Peace. In the early days the relationship was suffused with praise; each man knew well what the other liked to hear. “It is reassuring to have a true intellectual in residence,” Nixon wrote Moynihan in 1969, and a few months later he said, perhaps sensing Moynihan’s restlessness with university life, “You belong in the exciting things.” He reassured Moynihan that he wanted peace in Vietnam, and Moynihan usually expressed his opposition to the war as gently as possible.

The memos that Moynihan often sent Nixon were filled with small bouquets: “your great Inaugural Address”; “your brilliant first year in office”; “What you have done for racial equality is without equal in American history”; “New Federalism is generally held [in England, where Moynihan had just been] to be the most important domestic initiative since the New Deal.” Moynihan’s flattery (and self-flattery—the presidential ideas he extolled were often the ones he had thought of) had a higher purpose: He used it, successfully, to help coax Nixon into agreement with his vision of what the administration should do. Nearly all the great presidential initiatives he wrote to Nixon about were meant, in Moynihan’s mind, to send a message—not to average voters or foreign leaders or any of the other standard objects of symbolic presidential actions, but to intellectuals. Actually bringing them around to a position of support for Nixon, which Nixon thought of as part of Moynihan’s job, Moynihan realized was, in 1969 and 1970, impossible. But they could be neutralized, he thought, through a kind of one-upsmanship: If Nixon built up a record of liberal accomplishment, it would become clear that the intellectuals’ attacks on him were based not on any substantive objection to his policies, but on pure destructiveness. In the end they would be discredited, which was a necessary precondition of the moral restoration of the republic.

Nixon: big-spending liberal

Nixon instinctively disliked the war on poverty. Two months after taking office, he wrote Ehrlichman, “No increase in any poverty program until more evidence is in”; on another memo, which listed all the presidential appointees at the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), he wrote, “I want immediate action on all these characters.” Moynihan might have been expected to urge Nixon to follow his inclination to put the OEO out of business; at the time, he was probably the best-known critic of the war on poverty in the country, having published in 1969 a book attacking community action called Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding. He sent Nixon a positive review of the book in January 1969, with a note saying “Wait till the OEO types get to me!” “Very intriguing—!” Nixon wrote back.

And yet Moynihan’s position was exactly the opposite: In the first few months of the administration, he was responsible for persuading Nixon to spare the OEO—for strategic reasons, not because he considered it an effective government agency. Why give the Left any ammunition? “Avoid at whatever immediate costs . . . an enormous controversy over the ‘war on poverty,'” he wrote Nixon a month after the inauguration, and in a new introduction to Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, written in early 1970, he proudly reported that all suspicions that Nixon harbored ill will toward the poverty program had been shown to be nonsense. Moynihan’s entire record as an advisor to Nixon is one of always pushing him to make liberal gestures, great (like more government spending on social programs) and small (like restoring the funds that Johnson had cut for Robert Kennedy’s memorial at Arlington and granting a passport to the widow of W. E. B. Du Bois), and always making the case for them primarily on the basis of the need to neutralize the intellectual Left.

It helped Moynihan that the general tenor of the American establishment during the first Nixon administration was probably more liberal than it had ever been before and than it has been since. Conservatism of the variety that prevailed during Ronald Reagan’s presidency was a fringe ideology in the early seventies, and Nixon would have had to wage all-out war against the Congress, the press, the universities, the foundations, and even most corporate leaders if he had wanted to reverse completely the rising tide of social welfare programs. His real area of interest was foreign policy, and he was not inclined to expend his political capital on trying to bring about a conservative counterrevolution in domestic affairs.

Among his advisors, the people who would qualify as conservative by today’s standards consistently lost their battles with the forces of moderate Republicanism. As one of Nixon’s aides, Richard Nathan, puts it, “We just didn’t have a new conventional wisdom—we accepted the paradigm of the Great Society.” In the course of Nixon’s first term, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare pushed forward with many school desegregation cases in the South. The Labor Department established the use of numerical goals in affirmative action plans. Under pressure from the Democratic Congress, Nixon signed into law a program to create temporary jobs in the ghettos, a subsidized housing program, revenue sharing and block grants for cities, increases in welfare payments, a major expansion of the food stamps program, and a new program under Social Security that made payments to disabled people. That period in the past, now so often mentioned in conservative political speeches, when we threw money at our problem was really the first Nixon administration more than it was either of the Democratic administrations of the sixties.

The FAP flap

Moynihan’s vision for the Nixon administration was far too ambitious for him to limit himself to ensuring that the government simply float along on a liberal tide. He had an idea in mind that would dramatically establish a new course for American social policy: a national guaranteed-income program called the Family Assistance Plan.

For years Moynihan had been advocating some kind of new government income support for families, and more recently, the idea of a guaranteed income had moved steadily into the forefront of his opinions, and the idea of full employment and jobs programs into the background. During the Nixon administration, “Moynihan was not pushing strongly for an employment solution,” Ehrlichman says. The strategic advantages of a guaranteed-income program, at that moment, were many. For a substantial initiative, it was quite inexpensive. It would replace something that nobody liked, the welfare system. It was easy to sell to Nixon: It was an antipoverty program that did not require venturing into such perilous territory as promoting integration or expanding the federal bureaucracy; as Moynihan presented the idea, it would cost only $2 billion a year and cut back on the size of government by consolidating the vast Democratic hodgepodge of federal income-support programs.

Additional attractions of the Family Assistance Plan lay in areas that could not be publicly discussed. The subject of black out-of-wedlock childbearing was still strictly verboten—”You weren’t supposed to talk about that,” says Richard Nathan—but the percentage of black children born to single mothers was continuing to rise. If the welfare system was to blame, then the Family Assistance Plan, which would give money to intact families as well as female-headed ones, would reverse the trend. Another trend it might reverse was the black migration to the North. For several years it had occurred to government officials that the crisis in the ghettos might be solved by finding a way to keep rural southern blacks from moving to the cities. Toward the end of his presidency, Johnson set up a secret Interagency Task Force on Rural-Urban Migration to look into this question, and in 1969 Moynihan set up a White House task force on “Internal Migration.” At Moynihan’s urging, Nixon said in his 1970 State of the Union address, “We must create a new rural environment which will not only stem the migration to urban centers but reverse it.”

Their efforts always foundered for the simple reason that, upon investigation, it became clear that the great migration was already coming to an end. By the late sixties, the dislocations caused by the mechanization of cotton cultivation in the South were substantially complete, and the word was out in the black South that the northern ghettos had become short on unskilled jobs and long on street crime. To people in Washington, though, it appeared that the tremendous disparities in the level of welfare benefits from state to state—Illinois consistently paid from three to four times what Mississippi did—were inducing poor blacks to move north just to get on welfare there. The Family Assistance Plan would establish a national uniform benefit level and so remove that incentive. Although Moynihan now stoutly denies that he believed the Family Assistance Plan would stem the black migration, the original proposal for it said, “No more will poor persons be driven out of one section of the Nation by inadequate or even punitive welfare legislation, and forced into crowded and hostile cities.” When Nixon made his first speech about the plan, he said the welfare system “has helped draw millions into the slums of our cities.” In The Politics of a Guaranteed Income, Moynihan’s book on the Family Assistance Plan, published in 1973, he approvingly quoted an article from The Economist that said, “A major requirement here is to get deserted welfare mothers and their large families out of the city centers instead of ridiculously saying that they can draw higher benefits only if they stay there.”

Perhaps the most appealing of all the nonobvious features of the Family Assistance Plan was that it would cut out of the action the kind of social welfare employees who Moynihan and Nixon felt were the Left’s main entering wedge into the government. In Moynihan’s formulation, the Family Assistance Plan represented the administration’s embracing an “income strategy” against poverty to replace Johnson’s “services strategy.” One member of the White House staff remembers that at the first big meeting where Moynihan proposed the plan, when he said that it would eliminate tens of thousands of social workers from the federal payroll, Nixon’s eyes lit up. As Moynihan imagined his proposal playing out, the Left would be inescapably trumped: it would of course be horrified by the Family Assistance Plan as a matter of self-interest, but to work actively for the defeat of the most sweeping liberal social initiative in years would appear hypocritical. This logic appealed to Nixon, too. On Christmas Eve, 1969, an assistant of Moynihan’s named John Price had to pay a brief visit to the Oval Office, and he found Nixon in a voluble mood. Price says, “Nixon said, ‘We as Republicans have to accept that the Democrats will always try to raise the payments from a guaranteed income and make us look mean. But the important thing is this:’—he pointed his finger at me—‘We established the principle!'”

The plan twice failed to pass in Congress. The opposition that sealed its fate came from conservative southern Democrats, most importantly Senator Russell Long of Louisiana. To Moynihan’s mind, though, the real villains were the left-wing organizations (such as the Welfare Rights Organization) that, contrary to his expectations, decided to campaign actively against the plan. The defeat of the Family Assistance Plan deepened his conviction that the Left had become the main obstacle to the achievement of liberal goals in America.

In 1973, when he was ambassador to India, Moynihan wrote to Melvin Laird, who had taken over his portfolio at the White House, to urge a third try for the Family Assistance Plan; his argument makes it clear how much more focused he was on the plan as an intellectual gambit than as a social program. It would not pass, he wrote, because “a guaranteed income will never be enacted while President Nixon is in office.” Still, the fight was worth it, because the plan was not “addressed to the poor” but “addressed to the cultural strata”—that is, it was meant to vitiate the arguments of intellectuals who liked to portray the Nixon administration as heedlessly right-wing. As to the objection of people like Burns and Long that the plan would encourage welfare dependency, Moynihan’s attitude was, essentially, that they might be right, but so what? Reducing dependency wasn’t the point. A large welfare-dependent class “will come to be accepted as the normal and manageable cost of doing urban business,” he wrote Laird. “It is in ways a political subsidy, as irrational perhaps as those paid to owners of oil wells, wheat fields, or aerospace companies, but whoever said politics was rational? Not Melvin Laird!”

Moynihan was occasionally able to induce Nixon to get into the spirit of bitterness about the liberal opposition to the Family Assistance Plan. In 1970, he wrote to him, “Can you believe the Urban League would be against FAP? Talk about class interests.” This prompted a handwritten response from Nixon to Moynihan, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman, with each man getting a message custom-tailored to the nature of his relationship with the president:

“Pat—Good job! (However I’m not surprised at the Urban League getting ‘political’ as November approaches.)”

“E—I think this cooks Whitney Young. He is hopelessly partisan.”

“H—Can’t some of our people who help finance the Urban League hit him? See if you can’t get someone on this.”

On the whole, though, Nixon was losing interest in the plan; as a politician in office, he could not afford to be so utterly consumed as Moynihan was with the thrust and parry of intellectual life. By the late summer of 1970, Ehrlichman’s notes have Nixon telling him, “Just get something done. . . . Let it appear we’ve fought and come half way. . . . Avoid appearance of defeat.” It was especially unfortunate for the Family Assistance Plan’s standing with Nixon that the Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, whom Nixon regarded as a dreamy, ineffectual leftist, proposed a guaranteed income during his campaign in 1972. At one point, while discussing McGovern’s plan with Ehrlichman, Nixon called in his faithful manservant, Manolo Sanchez. If McGovern won and implemented his plan, Sanchez said, according to Ehrlichman’s notes, “I quit—go on welfare.”

Left out

Moynihan knew exactly what was going on in black America. He had seen for years that the black poor in the cities were in trouble—that their unemployment rate was rising alarmingly, that their family networks were becoming more unstable, that their likelihood of going on welfare was increasing, that crime in their neighborhoods was growing more and more severe. More recently, he had realized that the growth in government employment was a great boon to the black middle class, and that as more blacks began to do better, the poor people in the ghettos would be cut off. It would seem that somebody who saw all these trends taking place would conclude that the worst possible answer for the problems of black America at that moment was concentrating on higher welfare payments at the expense of programs: That would cut off the growth of the social service jobs that were giving blacks their main avenue of opportunity without giving any additional jobs, education, or training that might help the poorest people to get out of the ghettos. That Moynihan, knowing what he knew, put all his political chips on a guaranteed income is testament to the ability of his preoccupation with the Left to distract him from what should have been the real point of his service in the White House.

In March 1969, just when he was beginning to promote the Family Assistance Plan, Moynihan wrote a long memo to Nixon, filled with urgent, italicized warnings, on the state of race relations in America—a memo that would’ve gotten him in much more trouble than his notorious memo urging Nixon to treat racial issues with “benign neglect.” It demonstrates the line of reasoning that was pulling Moynihan away from the idea of giving blacks more government programs, and toward giving them more welfare instead.

Moynihan began the memo by stressing the need for “the integration into the larger society of what is now a sizable urban lower class which at the moment is experiencing more than its share of the bad habits and bad luck which through history have affected such groups and caused them to be seen as ‘different’ or undesirable by their more prudent and fortunate neighbors. . . . The Negro lower class would appear to be unusually self-damaging, that is to say, more so than is normal for such groups.” He went on to show how mixed his feelings were about the new black middle class, because of its political leanings:

The Negro poor having become more openly violent—especially in the form of the rioting of the mid-sixties—they have given the black middle class an incomparable weapon with which to threaten white America. This has been for many an altogether intoxicating experience. “Do this or the cities will burn.” And of course they have been greatly encouraged in this course by white rhetoric of the Kerner Commission variety. But most important of all, the existence of a large marginal, if not dependent, black urban lower class has at last given the black middle class an opportunity to establish a secure and rewarding power base in American society—as the provider of social services to the black lower class. . . . What building contracts and police graft were to the 19th-century urban Irish, the welfare department, Head Start, and black studies programs will be to the coming generation of Negroes. They are of course very wise in this respect. These are expanding areas of economic opportunity. By contrast, black business enterprise offers relatively little. In all this there will be the peculiar combination of weakness and strength that characterizes Negro Americans as a group at this time. . . . There is no true Negro intellectual or academic class at this moment. (Thirty years ago there was: Somehow it died out.) Negro books are poor stuff for the most part. Black studies are by and large made up of the worst kind of ethnic longings-for-a-glorious-past. .

Helping the ghettos would, Moynihan continued, deprive “the militant middle class” of the ability to make an ongoing “threat to the larger society, much as the desperate bank robber threatens to drop the vial of nitroglycerin.” Hence the income strategy: a gesture toward the ghettos that would simultaneously take the play from the militant middle class.

Although the Family Assistance Plan as a specific program failed politically, the general principle it embodied succeeded. The Nixon administration in effect did implement the income strategy by greatly increasing the payment levels of welfare, food stamps, Social Security, and disability pensions, while allowing government social welfare employment to level off. At the same time, the proportion of blacks in poverty, which decreased from 55 percent in 1959 to 32 percent in 1969, also leveled off and has stayed relatively level ever since, lacking a decisive nudge from either the manual-labor economy or the federal government. In his own fashion Moynihan had done exactly what he so often accused the Left of doing: Claiming to be motivated by concern for the poor, he had set a course whose real aim was to embarrass his enemies, one that was not in the best interest of the people he was supposed to be helping.

Callous aforethought

After Nixon’s landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election, a moment had passed in American history—or, to use the phrase Moynihan coined to describe the events that followed the publication of his report on the black family, a moment was lost. Race remained, and will remain, one of the obsessive themes of American life, but the period when it was the central domestic concern of the federal government seemed to be over. The presidential electorate had become essentially Republican. Within liberal circles, race now had to share the domestic agenda with other causes, like environmentalism. The summer riots had tailed off, and therefore so had the idea that the condition of the ghettos threatened the country as a whole. After the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, the national sense that there was enough economic breathing space to allow for the contemplation of expensive social reforms evaporated.

Over time, the tenuous nature of the war on poverty faded from memory; it began to seem that the government had tried everything to help the ghettos, spending untold billions, and that nothing had worked. David Stockman, driving William Greider of The Washington Post through the poor black section in his hometown of Benton Harbor, Michigan, just before taking charge of domestic policy in the Reagan administration, said, “1 wouldn’t be surprised if $100 million had been spent here in the last 20 years. Urban renewal, CETA, Model Cities, they’ve had everything. And the results? No impact whatever.”

But we hadn’t tried everything. We never tried making Head Start a universal program, or expanding it beyond the preschool years. We never tried the kind of major public works program that the Labor Depaitment pushed for in the sixties. We never tried putting enough police on foot patrol in the ghettos to make a real dent in the disastrous level of crime there. We never replaced the welfare system with something designed to get poor people into the mainstream of society.

Of the billions the federal government spent, by far the lion’s share went to the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the hungry, and in all those areas the problems it addressed were substantially solved. The black middle class grew faster during the Great Society period than at any other time in American history. One of the things we did try, community action, which used up most of the war on poverty’s political capital, was an idea that couldn’t possibly have accomplished what it was supposed to; and all the federal efforts in the ghettos took place during a uniquely difficult time for liberal initiatives aimed at racial problems.

Nonetheless, the idea endures that anything the federal government might do for the black poor will surely fail, and it has become a powerful force in its own right; misapprehensions about the past have a way of determining the future.

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Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.