A new film examines the intellectual, diplomatic, and political career of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003), the United States Senator from New York, who in 1999 introduced the first bill to create the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB). Enacted in December 2000, the PIDB legislation authorized one of 16 recommendations to improve access to government information presented in the final report of the Moynihan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (March 1997).
In the arc of his life-long commitment to evidence-based policy, the film samples Senator Moynihan’s skepticism toward excessive government secrecy, underscoring his concern that policymakers too often ignore even the open facts that are critical for informed decision making in a democracy. For example, during his first term in the Senate (1977-1982), Moynihan cited the already abundant evidence of economic inefficiency in Russian food production to debunk politicians who exaggerated the stability of the Soviet Union.
While scoffing at credulous politicians, Moynihan never shied from confronting undemocratic governments on moral grounds. In the film, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recalls that as President Ford’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Moynihan defied more conventional diplomats by dramatically speaking before the UN General Assembly to denounce a notoriously anti-semitic resolution sponsored by the Ugandan dictator Idi Amen. Kissinger’s State Department officials would have preferred a more quiet diplomacy.
Going back to Moynihan’s rise from a broken home in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, the film makes a persuasive case that the problem of poverty remained central to the policy initiatives that drove his career. Moynihan arrived in Washington as an appointee to President John Kennedy’s Department of Labor under Secretary Arthur Goldberg. Serving as Assistant Secretary of Labor during President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” he focused on the links between poverty and racial inequality.
After teaching at Harvard, Moynihan made the rare transition from Johnson’s administration and academia to serve as President Richard Nixon’s Assistant for Domestic Policy, and Counselor to the President. Although Congress failed to pass it, Moynihan drafted legislation that President Nixon supported to provide a guaranteed income to all Americans. In 1970 he again left government for Harvard.
Moynihan’s diplomatic career began when he returned to public service as Nixon’s Ambassador to India in 1973, and continued with his appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations by President Ford in 1975. First elected in 1977 to the United States Senate, he served four terms before retiring in 2001.
The film shows that Moynihan’s deep concerns about excessive government secrecy remained consistent with his long advocacy for evidence-based policy that would improve social conditions for the benefit of citizens under democratically elected governments. The PIDB continues as part of his larger legacy, to implement the idea that by promoting transparency in government, democratic processes must also curtail the excesses of government.
Event: Moynihan (2018), directed by Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich, written by Joseph Dorman, and showing locally through November 1. For showtimes, consult: AFI Silver Theatre and Culture Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910.