Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter


The press and media are full of reports of extreme partisanship and acrimony in Congress and with the White House in recent times.  But not that long ago, the parties at least appeared to work together to solve national problems regardless of party affiliations.  By no means did they agree on everything or make a president with different political party affiliation struggle to achieve his agenda easy when the Congressional power was in the other party’s hands.  But when Daniel Patrick Moynihan retired in 2001, we lost one of those able to navigate across party lines.

Early Life and Career

Moynihan was born on March 16, 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma to John Henry, who was a reporter for a local paper in Tulsa, and Margaret Ann (nee Phipps).  When he was six, the family moved to Hell’s Kitchen in New York City.  Moynihan worked an odd assortment of jobs as a child and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem. After a short stint as a longshoreman, Moynihan attended the City College of New York, which provided free education for New York residents.  After one year at the city school, he joined the United States Navy in 1944 and then enrolled at Tufts University, where he received a degree in naval science in 1946.

After his military service, Moynihan obtained a second undergraduate degree from Tufts in 1948 and then received an M.A. from its Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  Moynihan attended the London School of Economics from 1950 to 1953 as a Fulbright fellow.  Moynihan became politically active in the 1950s, serving in various capacities for New York Governor Averell Harriman.  In 1960, Moynihan was a Democratic National Convention delegate.

National Politics

Shortly after the 1960 DNC Convention, Moynihan began to serve in the national government, something that he would continue for the next fifty years.  He served the Kennedy administration as special then executive assistant to the Department of Labor from 1961 to 1963, and then was appointed the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy, Planning and Research from 1963 to 1965.  He worked primarily during that time on what became known as the “War on Poverty.”  In this role, Moynihan issued a report, The Negro Family:  The Case for National Action, known also as “The Moynihan Report,” that was attacked by the left and by the right.  Moynihan would later receive some criticism when in 1994, after the Republicans swept Congress, when he noted with respect to the welfare system, “The Republicans are saying we have a hell of a problem, and we do.”

Moynihan left the Johnson administration in 1965, returning to academics.  In January 1969, Moynihan became Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and executive secretary of the Council on Urban Affairs under President Richard Nixon.  From late 1969 until the end of 1970, Moynihan served as Counselor to the President.  In 1973, Moynihan became Ambassador to India and, in June 1975, he became United States Ambassador to the United Nations.  The United Nations post was by President Gerald Ford, another Republican.

Senator Moynihan

In 1976, Moynihan was elected to the United States Senate, and would serve for the next twenty-four years.  As a Senator, Moynihan supported the ban on partial-birth abortions, and opposed President Bill Clinton’s universal health care coverage push.  He also opposed NAFTA and the flat tax.  He also voted against the Defense of Marriage Act and the Communications Decency Act.

Despite his working for previous Republican administrations, Moynihan was not a supporter of President Ronald Reagan’s hawkish Cold War policies.  However, during the time that Moynihan served in the Senate, the Democrats controlled the Senate for much of that period.  Despite that party difference, Moynihan was someone who could effectively work across the aisle and work with Republican presidents and congressional members to address various issues of national import.

In a 2010 Daily Beast column (available at, John Avlon wrote:

The Moynihan that emerges in these letters is engaging and unfailingly civil, armed with statistics and a sweeping view of history. He could be surprisingly thin-skinned—unlike many politicians, his was a sensitive soul. But it is clear that his counsel was sought by presidents because he brought more light than heat to the conversation. He thought with a sense of historic perspective and he always felt the possibility as well as the limits of government action. He believed that government could improve the lives of its citizens, but he recognized that government overreach could create unintended consequences and provoke political backlash.


Moynihan is one of a dying breed in Washington- someone who effectively could interact with members and presidents from the opposing political party and who as Avlon notes tried to bring the long perspective to various issues.  He was not always right and could take umbrage at those who did not agree with him, but he tried.

Dan Cotter is a partner at Latimer LeVay Fyock LLC and an adjunct professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is in the process of writing a book on the seventeen Chief Justices.  He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.


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