Tropic Sprockets Goes Streaming / Moynihan

By Ian Brockway

Pat Moynihan (March 16, 1927 – March 26, 2003) was the famed member of the U.S. Senate, known for working both sides of the aisle. “Moynihan,” a documentary by Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich, is brisk and impactful. One receives the full breadth of this man.

Moynihan grew up during the Depression. His father was a drinker and over time, left the family. This profoundly influenced and disappointed him. As a young man, he helped his mother run a bar.

In the 1960s as a teacher at Syracuse, Moynihan became inspired by Kennedy. He secured a job with LBJ and worked on the War on Poverty program. He wrote The Moynihan Report which pointed to centuries of oppression and Jim Crow laws which disintegrate families, causing dysfunction. As he said “Lincoln freed the slaves, but they were given liberty not equality.” Moynihan urged to move beyond civil rights legislation and government speak to a realm of responsible action. LBJ incorporated his words into a famous speech at Howard University in 1965.

Then came the Watts riots. Columnists Evans and Novak saw racial generalizations in the report and Stokley Carmichael thought the report was blaming the victim, essentially becoming useless.

To be fair, the report was never meant for the public. Its bold language was only used to get the attention of politicians.

Johnson was appalled at his own negative attention and he severely blamed Moynihan.

Disappointed but undaunted, Moynihan worked under Nixon (of all presidents). Nixon liked him because the two shared similar experiences, and through Moynihan’s efforts Nixon had a panel on the environment and childhood development. Surprising issues for the nefarious Nixon.

The pair worked on the Family Assistance program which aimed at giving every family sixteen hundred dollars. The bill did not pass.

Moynihan got into further trouble by saying that the issue of race should use a “period of benign neglect”. This infuriated black radical leaders. Moynihan said he wrote it in part because he was concerned with rising militancy.

Controversy aside, Moynihan believed in the benevolence of working government and a democracy composed of different ideas. He sought to make bridges of thought. Moynihan was never known to demonize or divide. His ghost is an anomaly in the Washington halls of today. Owlish, round-faced, resembling a kind of political Oscar Wilde or Gore Vidal, his policies worked within the system, rather than demolishing and starting anew.

His work on urban affairs and black families remain important. Moynihan brought these issues to attention.

Narrated by Jeffrey Wright, “Moynihan” will give you a sense of nostalgia and righteous regret at times now past. Perhaps the most meaningful thing in the film is the awareness that Patrick Moynihan was a political person of spirit empathy, and conscious action.

This film showed at the Tropic last fall, in part to honor Moynihan, who was a Key West snowbird who spent some of his last days here. It’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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