Saturday, May 16, 2009

Words for Obama, From a Prior Notre Dame Address

“The crisis of the time is not political, it is in essence religious. It is a religious crisis of large numbers of intensely moral, even godly, people who no longer hope for God. Hence, the quest for divinity assumes a secular form, but with an intensity of conviction that is genuinely new to our politics. Central to the quest for secular grace is the detestation of secular sin incarnate, namely, the United States of America, ‘the most repressive, inhumane capitalistic-imperialistic nation,’ as the student paper of a Middle Western state university recently put it, ‘the world has ever seen.’”—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Politics as the Art of the Impossible,” delivered as the Commencement Address at Notre Dame University, June 1969, reprinted in Moynihan’s Coping: On the Practice of Government (1974)

If Barack Obama and his speechwriters were casting about for models for the President’s upcoming oration at Notre Dame University, they could have done worse than studying Pat Moynihan’s speech on a similar occasion at the school 40 years earlier.

The university’s awarding of an honorary degree to Obama has caused no end of controversy from the usual subjects—the Catholic archbishops, insisting on the primacy of abortion to the near-exclusion of all other issues, and liberals, asserting with equal vehemence that abortion should hardly be on the table at all as a subject for discussion, more than 35 years after Roe v. Wade.

During the past election, Obama’s comment on the matter—that the question of when life began would be “way above his pay grade”—showed how much he wished this issue would just go away. Yet ducking the matter is not only futile, but a disquieting indication of a lack of moral seriousness.

One politician who rarely if ever avoided controversy was the late Senator Moynihan—so much so that The New York Times in the mid-Seventies dubbed him, rather snarkily, “that rambunctious child of the sidewalks of New York.” Agree with him or not (and there was much to take issue with him about), at least Moynihan paid people the compliment of having intelligence enough to listen to a provocative, soundbite-free argument.

In other words, he made you think outside the boundaries of left and right. God only knows, we could use some of that today.

Let’s start with the tension that gives Moynihan’s polemics so much of its tension and force—his belief that there were some things government could and must do and others that it couldn’t. As enumerated in his Notre Dame address, the latter amounted to this:

“It cannot provide values to persons who have none, or who have lost those they had. It cannot provide a meaning to life. It cannot provide inner peace. It can provide moral energies, but it cannot create those energies. In particular, government cannot cope with the crisis in values that is sweeping the western world.”

If Obama wants to create some common ground with those who opposed Notre Dame’s invitation, he might want to acknowledge what has been all too wanting in his party’s platform these last three decades: that abortion is not a matter of sexual freedom or personal privacy, but an issue of “the crisis in values” that Moynihan warned about. And that crisis lies at the heart of the issue that perhaps cost the senator the most in his career: his analysis of family life.

As a subcabinet official in the Johnson administration, Moynihan had written a report about African-American family life. The controversy that developed over his analysis of the growing crisis of illegitimacy stifled debate on the issue, leading to two decades of hardening ideological positions and, worst of all, governmental inaction.

We are facing something analogous now with respect to abortion. As a Catholic politician, Moynihan faced even fiercer pressures than Obama, a non-Catholic, does now.

The senator’s response—generally pro-choice, though he opposed partial-birth abortion as coming uncomfortably close to infanticide—pleased few people totally, though it did reflect his belief in incrementalism—a longstanding attitude that came under fire from both left and right in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The "quest for secular grace" that Moynihan noted merely replaced one form of consuming passion--religion--with another--politics. The all-or-nothing-at-all attitude carried over from one realm to another, however.

For all their differences in temperament—Obama is possessed of almost remarkable reserves of cool, while Moynihan was anything but—the President shares something of the same attitude, that politics is a work of imperfect men to bring about a better society. But he might want to consider everything else he has in common with the late senator:

* Both were born far outside the major cities that became their homes—Moynihan in Tulsa, Obama in Honolulu;
* Both provoked some unease from opponents because they were sojourners—Moynihan, drifting between government and academe; Obama, not just from place to place but even from one governmental position to another;
* Both were associated, either as graduate or academic, with Ivy League universities;
* Both had to figure out how to put together winning coalitions in their first Senate campaigns;
* Both married strong-willed women; and
* Both became famous for their writings (Moynihan, for puzzling out public policy; Obama, for puzzling out the difficulties posed by his mixed-race inheritance).

But the similarity Obama might want to consider the most is this: both men grew up for long periods of their childhood and youth without fathers. Obama’s, we know, broke up with his wife and returned to Kenya; Moynihan’s dad, an alcoholic, walked out on the family, leaving his wife to run a saloon and his son to pick up whatever he could from shining shoes.

After nearly four decades of Roe v. Wade, Obama might want to ask his audience—not just the one in the seats in South Bend, but nationally—whether wanted babies are really more of a fact of life than before; and what we, as a society, are doing to strengthen or destroy this structure.

He might ask his audience if the fact that abortion is a moral issue necessarily puts it outside the realm of governmental action at all, and might challenge his own supporters to ask whether a single-minded commitment such as that displayed by much (though hardly all) of the pro-life movement is really such a bad thing after all.

Obama’s own rise to the Oval Office testifies to the strength and worth of a single cause—the civil-rights movement. Were civil-rights activists swayed by Southern segregationist politicians who wondered why the commotion for a single cause when they voted liberal down the line in just about every other way?

And what was the civil-rights movement if not a moral cause? President Kennedy’s powerful address to the nation after Birmingham was nothing if not blunt about the nature of this issue: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

Part of the conundrum that has confused American politics over the last several decades is that Democrats, for most of the 20th century the party of economic regulation, now insist on sexual deregulation, while Republicans have moved in the opposite direction.

If Obama truly wants to move Americans out of their hardened positions on abortion, he needs to use words, directed at his supporters as much as at the protestors who so visibly annoy many in the media.

Few modern Americans believed as much in the power of words to reframe a debate as Moynihan. Three decades ago, he was profiled in a book called The Literary Politicians by Mitchell Ross. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to name another contemporary figure who sought to advance discussion of public policy as powerfully through the pen as through their office (the other subjects of Ross’ book—William F. Buckley Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Norman Mailer, Henry Kissinger, and Gore Vidal—have either passed on or are now in the twilight of their careers).

Yet Moynihan, uniquely among modern Senators, would fit in well with the brilliant intellects—and yes, politicians—who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to frame the Constitution. As he talks about the debate that has polarized Americans for too long, Obama would do well to follow the boundary-crossing, independent line that Moynihan pursued so well throughout his career.

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