New documentary gives a glimpse into the mind of Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Film portrays the scholar and politician as a man who grew up with an insatiable quest for knowledge.

August 19, 2019 22:34
Daniel Patrick Moynihan at NBC studios in the 1960s

Daniel Patrick Moynihan at NBC studios in the 1960s. (photo credit: FIRST RUN FEATURES)

Toby Perl Freilich, who directed the documentary, Moynihan, with Joseph Dorman, spoke about what moved her most when making this film, which had its Israeli premiere on Sunday at the DocuText Festival at the National Library. DocuText continues until Thursday.

This brilliant, engaging movie is currently available on iTunes, Amazon VOD and several other platforms (see note at the end of the article). It focuses on Daniel Patrick Moynihan, (1927-2003), a US Senator, UN ambassador and scholar who was a maverick intellectual and used his mind to try to better the lives of the poor. While it touches on his personal life, particularly his childhood and how it impacted his work, it is not a biography of the man but rather an incisive look at his ideas and ideals.

“He always understood that there were people who were going to fall through the cracks. He felt that government needed to be there to catch them with a safety net... He was interested in how policy affected people, how government could help them. Someone once asked him why he switched from academia to politics,” she said. “He said it was the other way around, that he had come to academia through politics. His academic work was always rooted in the real world.”

Freilich and Dorman paint a portrait of the scholar and politician, who worked for both Democrats and Republicans, as a man who grew up with an insatiable quest for knowledge and who found answers in places other people wouldn’t even have thought to look. A host of Moynihan’s colleagues, friends, family and admirers, including his widow, are interviewed in the film, and a Who’s Who of 20th and 21st century political thinkers analyze his ideas, including Henry Kissinger, Sen. Charles Schumer, George Will, Norman Podhoretz and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who look at his legacy from every side of the political spectrum.

Ambassador Moynihan at the UN, 1975

“Moynihan was a poor Irish kid who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen,” Freilich said of his youth in the one-time bastion of poor and working class Irish Americans. “His father abandoned the family. He was an autodidact and he understood how important public institutions like good public schools and libraries were.”

Moynihan, who began his higher education at City College, went on to get a Fulbright Scholarship and earned a PhD from Tufts University, studying on the GI bill after a stint in the Navy towards the end of World War II. “I never saw a tuition bill in my life,” he said.

The two directors are experienced documentary filmmakers, but making a film that focused on ideas without a whiff of sensationalism was a delicate dance. Still, their previous work had prepared them well for this. Freilich, a New Yorker who divides her time between that city and Jerusalem, made a critically acclaimed documentary, Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment, about the evolution of the kibbutz movement. Dorman has directed several films, including Arguing the World, a look at the political journey of several well-known intellectuals — Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer — as well as Colliding Dreams, a history of Zionism.

“[Dorman] lives and breathes this stuff,” Freilich said. “I had done this film on the kibbutz movement, Inventing Our Life, about how a Marxist movement crashed against the reality of the capitalist world, so this was a natural progression for each of us, how left manages the encounter with right, how ideas and ideologies evolve.”

The film chronicles in great detail how perceptions have changed about Moynihan’s revolutionary 1965 report, generally known as the Moynihan Report but which was originally called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which he wrote when he was an assistant labor secretary to President Lyndon Johnson.

The finding of the report that was the most influential was that many families in the black community were single-parent families and that the children growing up without fathers were especially disadvantaged. It also posited how social programs such as a jobs program could level the playing field for them. But while the report identified a real problem — it cites statistics that at the time, 24% of black children were born out of wedlock, while only 3% of white children were — the report was excoriated as racist by many African Americans, a reaction that surprised and hurt Moynihan.

Yet, in recent years, the pendulum has swung back somewhat, as Coates explained in the film in a nuanced assessment of the Moynihan report.

One insight of Moynihan’s that may surprise viewers is that as early as 1981, he predicted the imminent demise of the USSR.

“He looked at male mortality statistics and other publicly available information, and that helped him understand the Soviet Union was falling apart... and that the CIA didn’t have a clue.” This realization was critically important for him because he understood that the US did not need to spend so much money and resources trying to fight Communism, a conclusion that was not shared by other policy advisors.

For many, Moynihan’s finest hour came when he was UN ambassador under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and he passionately opposed the UN’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution 3379, which was adopted on November 10, 1975 by a vote of 72 to 35.

“When Moynihan goes to the UN, he is the standard bearer for the American way of life. He thinks it’s time to stop apologizing. The USSR has this terrible human rights record and he thinks human rights should be on the table. The emerging states were saying, ‘We want to talk about imperialism.’ He said, ‘No, I have a different agenda.’”

Moynihan saw the resolution as another skirmish in the Cold War. When Somalia, a Soviet client-state, proposed the resolution, “He felt that this was an anti-US maneuver. He was furious for that reason.” The film shows how he was able to trace the evolution of the idea to theories in Pravda that Jews were successors to the Nazis and that inspired him not to ignore or minimize the resolution, as some advised, but to fight it with everything he had.

“He thought it was disgusting. The sheer chutzpah of it was so nauseating to him,” said Freilich. “Also, he is such a stickler for language. He feels it’s a big lie. Zionism is not racism. Racism is an important concept. To distort the meaning of racism is as destructive as distorting the meaning of Zionism.”

While the filmmakers began making the film before “a Trump presidency was a gleam in anyone’s eye” it was finished after Donald Trump was elected, and prominently features what is perhaps Moynihan’s most famous quote, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” These words seem especially prescient at a time when members of the Trump administration have coined the phrase, “alternative facts” and a former press secretary said that Hitler did not use poison gas against his own people.

Said Freilich, “Sen. Moynihan said, ‘If you have contempt for the government, you will get contemptible government.’ We had cut that out for length, but after Trump won that had to be back in.”

In addition to iTunes and Amazon VOD, Moynihan can be purchased as a DVD from University students can see it on Kanopy at

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