But it wasn't just his advanced degrees and his Fulbright scholarship that set Moynihan apart there are plenty of intelligent members of Congress. Moynihan stood out because of his insistence on intellectual honesty and his unwillingness to walk away from a looming debate, no matter how messy it promised to be. Moynihan offered challenging, groundbreaking sometimes even successful solutions to perennial public policy dilemmas, including welfare and racism.
This is the sort of intellectual stubbornness that rarely makes an appearance in Washington today. Successful politicians, including, most recently, Bill Clinton, usually temper their sharp intelligence with an ability to communicate in populist terms. The policy wonk who lacks a light touch think Al Gore or Paul Simon is subject to attack by the popular press for what is perceived as snobbery, while our less intellectually engaged politicians think George W. Bush or Tim Hutchinson are lauded for their ability to connect with voters.
Moynihan, along with a few colleagues, including the late Paul Wellstone and current Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee, were able to win voters' confidence without having to compromise their messages, or their intellect. Whether he was led by political instinct or innate conviction, Moynihan believed fiercely in the importance of serious, multi-layered debate, a skill that continues to dissipate as the daily sound bytes shrink.
Americans in recent years have made it clear we don't want to elect politicians who are smarter than we are. Rather than pin our national hopes to politicians at ease with nuance, most of us seem to crave average thinkers with average ideas. And that's a shame, because all of us should feel encouraged and comforted, rather than threatened, by the presence of great thinkers in Washington. As Moynihan proved over the course of nearly forty years in government, great minds are well-used in the messy and essential arena of public service.