Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) may be best known as a statesman. He served in the administrations of presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford; was ambassador to India and the United Nations; and represented New York in the U.S. Senate for four terms. But he was also an intellectual of the first order, whose books and papers on topics ranging from welfare policy and ethnicity in American society to international law stirred debate and steered policy. Moynihan was, journalist Michael Barone remarked, "the nation's best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson."
He was, Greg Weiner argues, America's answer to the 18th-century Anglo-Irish scholar-statesman Edmund Burke. Both stood at the intersection of thought and action, denouncing tyranny, defending the family, championing reform. Yet while Burke is typically claimed by conservatives, Weiner calls Moynihan a "Burkean liberal" who respected both the indispensability of government and the complexity of society. And a reclamation of Moynihan's Burkean liberalism, Weiner suggests, could do wonders for the polarized politics of our day.
In its incisive analysis of Moynihan's political thought, American Burke lays out the terms for such a recovery. The book traces Moynihan's development through the broad sweep of his writings and career. "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society," Moynihan once wrote. "The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." In his ability to embrace both of these truths, this "American Burke" makes it bracingly clear that a wise political thinker can also be an effective political actor, and that commitments to both liberal and conservative values can coexist peaceably and productively.
Weiner's work is not only a thorough and thoroughly engaging intellectual exploration of one of the most important politicians of the twentieth century; it is also a timely prescription for the healing of our broken system.
"Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the leader I admired most. In Greg Weiner, he has found an interpreter worthy of his intellect. American Burke is an important book that should inspire the new generation of scholar-statesmen we need. For those who did not have the honor to know Senator Moynihan, this study will be a revelation of the gift the nation was, for a vast public career, privileged to enjoy. Those who did know him will read it and say simply: 'This is Pat.'"
-Former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey
"Few American senators of the past century would be worthy of an extended study of their political philosophy, but Daniel Patrick Moynihan certainly was. American Burke is a fascinating and brilliant account of what was an unusual political philosophy for a successful American politician—a liberal, yes, but one aware of the complexity of society and social institutions, the difficulty of molding or remolding them, the worth of traditional institutions and arrangements, and yes, something of an American Burke, And all this was expressed in the most engaging and sparkling style of any political figure of recent generations. Whatever else is written of Moynihan, and there will be much, this will stand as a classic."
-Nathan Glazer, coauthor with Moynihan of Beyond the Melting Pot
"Gregory Weiner's brilliant and nuanced book shows that Daniel Moynihan, one of America's most provocative social thinkers, knew that government had the capacity to do good but also that there were limits to what it might achieve. Would that the country would have more like him."
James T. Patterson, author of Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama
"Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the late 20th century’s leading public intellectuals, defied easy categorizations throughout his extraordinary life. In this perceptive and carefully argued study, Greg Weiner argues persuasively that Moynihan was an “uncommon liberal” who embodied liberal and conservative strains and believed in an activist government even as he remained skeptical about government’s capacity to produce change. Reading this fine intellectual biography reminds one of Moynihan’s extraordinary honesty and range of interests—and how public life has been diminished since his passing."
-Steven R. Weisman, editor of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letter of an American Visionary