WASHINGTON – More power started to be vested in the White House staff in 1969, during Richard Nixon’s administration. Today, there are about twice as many full-time White House staff members as there were then.
Yet if more administrations handled domestic issues in the way the Nixon White House did in 1969, there would be many fewer complaints about powerful White House staffs.
That’s right, the Nixon administration is a model for a professional debate, with huge stakes, over the direction of the country.
The protagonists were Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democratic intellectual from Harvard University, and Arthur Burns, the pre-eminent conservative economist.
Moynihan, who went on to serve four terms as a U.S. senator from New York, was appointed by Nixon to serve as urban affairs adviser in 1969. That same year, Burns joined the White House as domestic policy adviser. He went on to become chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
Their relationship is the theme of a delicious new book, “The Professor and the President,” by political scientist Stephen Hess, who was Moynihan’s deputy in the White House. It captures the dynamics as Moynihan and Burns clashed over economics, welfare, the environment and health care. The views of the liberal Moynihan often prevailed.
Nixon, the bane of most liberals, surprised everyone by selecting Moynihan as a top adviser.
Nixon viewed the presidency mainly through the prism of foreign policy, and didn’t care much about domestic politics. Yet, like many, he was dazzled by Moynihan, whom he called “my intellectual-in-residence.”
Moynihan effectively flattered and persuaded Nixon; and he provided him with books to read. Nixon once surprised his Cabinet by urging officials to read David Cecil’s biography of Lord Melbourne or Robert Blake on Benjamin Disraeli.
In the clashes with Burns, Moynihan played on Nixon’s desire for big achievements, but also on the president’s memories of an impoverished childhood.
Moynihan’s biggest victory was in the debate over the Family Assistance Plan, a negative income tax or guaranteed minimum income. With support from Labor Secretary George Shultz, Moynihan persuaded a Republican president to offer a radical proposal. Although the measure never won congressional approval, it led to a partial compromise: the Supplemental Security Income program, which has helped people with disabilities and the elderly poor for decades.
There were other Moynihan victories: He got the president to embrace the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue, which transformed Washington’s signature artery — then a wasteland of broken down and tacky buildings and stores — into a glittering boulevard.
With his fetish for data, he cajoled the administration into ending the practice of keeping separate white and nonwhite categories for routine statistics.
The greater impact of Moynihan, who viewed his charge as broader than just urban affairs, was to set in motion a bigger Nixon domestic view on health, welfare and environmental issues, and to get beyond the traditional budget-conscious positions embraced by Burns. The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 was a seminal achievement.
“Pat changed the trajectory of domestic policies in a way Nixon never promised or expected,” Hess said in an interview.
Moynihan and Burns, who shared a mutual respect, both left the administration in 1970. The White House changed, former Nixon adviser Herb Klein said, and “hardball replaced political philosophy.” Sadly we know where that led.
Hess’ short remembrance makes us wish there were a Moynihan and a Burns in President Barack Obama’s White House, or in George W. Bush’s — or in whatever administration takes office in 2017 — debating, articulating views on tax reform, income inequality, health care.
It’s a treat to recall Moynihan, who died in 2003. There are several other books in the works, though we still await the definitive biography of one of the most influential figures of last half of the 20th century.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said that Moynihan was one of his colleagues — Mike Mansfield was the other — whom he could envision in Philadelphia with America’s founders in 1776.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau. Hunt hosts the weekly television show “Political Capital with Al Hunt.”