A conversation with “Moynihan” directors Joseph Dorman and Toby Freilich

Monday, Apr 22, 2019
by Julie Clack

Daniel Patrick “Pat” Moynihan was an American politician, professor and diplomat with a career that spanned four decades. He served New York as a senator for nearly thirty years, advised four presidential administrations — two Democratic and two Republican — and worked at Harvard as a professor of sociology.

The feature-length documentary “Moynihan,” directed by Joseph Dorman and Toby Freilich, gives audiences an engaging, in-depth overview of Moynihan’s illustrious career and deeply-held convictions. The film was screened at the Princeton Garden Theatre last month and was followed by a panel discussion with Freilich, Dorman and Kathryn Edin, professor of sociology and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School. Melissa Lane, the University Center for Human Values’ executive director, chaired the discussion. Before the screening, Julie Clack of the University Center for Human Values sat down with Freilich and Dorman to learn more about the film’s inception and personal significance.

Freilich and Dorman are ethnically Jewish and New York City natives. They have both made documentaries on various aspects of their ethnicity; Freilich’s film “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment” examines the legacy of kibbutzim, and Dorman’s 1998 documentary “Arguing the World” showcases the role four Jewish, New York City-based men played in shaping Americans’ political views. Yet Freilich and Dorman’s decision to make a film on Moynihan, an Irish Catholic, is much less disparate than one might think.

“[“Moynihan”] was almost a natural extension of both ‘Arguing the World’ and our shared interest in ethnicity and intellectual politics,” said Freilich. “Growing up Jewish in New York and being a member of just one of so many different ethnic groups, I had an instinctive appreciation for Moynihan's grasp of the endurance of ethnicity — that the proverbial melting pot was actually a much more complex stew than had always been assumed.”

Like the four men in Dorman’s documentary, Moynihan grew up poor and hyper-aware of his ethnicity. He also benefited from a public-school education at the City College of New York. Moynihan was closely tied to this group of Jewish intellectuals in a professional capacity, as well. One member of the foursome was Nathan Glazer, with whom Moynihan co-wrote the 1963 book “Beyond the Melting Pot,” which examines the problems experienced by minority ethnic groups in America.

As “Moynihan” illustrates, the importance Moynihan placed on the role of ethnicity in America informed many of his policies. Moynihan was a key player in planning the War on Poverty, a policy that would come to define the Johnson administration, but he is perhaps best remembered for his report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” commonly referred to as the Moynihan Report.

Moynihan was keenly aware of the disproportionate effect poverty had on African American families in the United States and believed that government needed to do something special for poor black people, as opposed to all poor people.

While this opinion, and many others, were censured at the time, Moynihan’s legacy as a public servant has outlived the controversy that stemmed from his sometimes-unpopular opinions.

“Moynihan’s interest in policy was deep; he knew how to read statistics and facts. He used that knowledge in his decades-long work on poverty policy,” said Dorman. “What distinguished Moynihan from other politicians was his consistency, his desire to really look at the facts, to not be swayed by a particular ideology, but to try to understand how government and society work.”

Both Dorman and Freilich emphasized how old-fashioned Moynihan’s ideals of public service are, especially in today’s political landscape. Freilich quoted: “Someone once said to him, ‘You’re a professor and you became a politician,’ to which he replied, ‘No; I was a politician who became a professor.’”

“Those were [Moynihan’s] two loves right from the get-go,” Freilich said. “He saw politics as something very noble and as a means to serve the public, and it infused everything he did.”

Dorman echoed this view: “Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein says in the film that [Moynihan] wouldn't be out of place among the Founding Fathers, and it sounds grandiose, but in some ways it isn't: his vision was such that, whether it was poverty policy or the way he understood public architecture, it was all a piece of his understanding of America as a democratic republic."   

“Moynihan” is now available for purchase on iTunes and on DVD.