This afternoon, our President, in a rather self-conscious move evoking unfortunate memories of Jimmy Carter’s 1979 effort at what we would now call “reset,” that resulted in the infamous “malaise” speech, appeared at a “town hall” meeting – not in some picturesque outpost of New England or recession-wracked pocket of the Midwest or South, but at the Newseum a stone’s throw from the White House.
The results were not happy.  Citizen after citizen got up to express disappointment with an administration that promised so much exactly a year and eight months ago, and has fallen so short of expectations.  One young man spoke of his loss of faith, not only in the change that President Obama vowed to bring in when he was a candidate, but in the promise of America itself. We’ve come a long way from the era when Ronald Reagan’s vision of a city on a hill could stir hope even in the depths of the 1981-82 recession.

At a moment like this, the President might find it useful to set aside his copy of Freedom (able novelist though Jonathan Franzen is) and instead acquire an advance copy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait In Letters Of An American Visionary, which will be published by Public Affairs Press next month.

It’s a big book, nearly 700 pages, and Steven Weisman, its editor, has assembled memos and letters from each phase of the most diversely gifted public intellectual of post-1950 America.  Whether as a professor, Presidential advisor, ambassador (to India and, memorably, the United Nations) or in his quarter-century as US Senator from New York, Pat Moynihan addressed the issues of the day in memorable prose, brimming with common sense and uncommon insight.

The new issue of New York magazine has a selection of passages from Moynihan’s memos to President Nixon and other top figures of the Nixon White House, with many a word applicable to today’s situation.  This, from a memo to RN of August 19, 1969, especially comes to mind.  Substitute a couple of current pictures for the two movies Moynihan mentions, “Chinese” for “Japanese,” and 2035 for 2000, and it could have been written this morning:

At the great risk of using a term of clinical psychiatry to describe a crisis in the culture, I would offer the thought that American society is becoming more and more schizophrenic. Two opposite and increasingly equal tendencies, often as not united in individuals, are splitting the nation. Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, cites as illustration the fact that just about the two leading box-office attractions of 1968 were The Graduate and The Green Berets. This is, in ways, a continuance of the old “pale face/ red skin” dichotomy of American culture, but it has now reached massive proportions.

To a degree that no one could have anticipated even three or four years ago, the educated elite of the American middle classes have come to detest their society, and their detestation is rapidly diffusing to youth in general. The effects of this profound movement of opinion will be with us for generations. It will, for example, drastically limit the role that the United States can play in world affairs—in contrast with the past three decades or so during which the national government has been really extraordinarily free to do what it thought best. There will be indirect effects. The movement of the American youth away from business will almost surely affect business. If it continues, I would imagine it almost certain, for example, that by the year 2000 the Japanese will have a higher per capita income than do the Americans. In one way or another, we are involved in a change of cultural dimensions that will be pervasive in its consequences …

The Economist has a very good advance review of the Moynihan letters, and it is also worth mentioning that two major events are coming up in the wake of the book’s publication. On October 18, at the Museum of the City of New York, Weisman will host a symposium that will include Stephen Hess, who worked closely with Moynihan at the Nixon White House, and New York’s senior Senator Chuck Schumer, as well as several others who worked with Pat.

And, on November 10 at 1:30 pm, at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, the Nixon Foundation will host another discussion of Moynihan’s far-ranging and far-sighted policies and proposals of forty years ago, with a panel including Stephen Hess and fellow Nixon White House staffers John R. Price, Christopher DeMuth and Chester Finn.