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A political firebrand gets his closeup in Toby Perl Freilich’s 'Moynihan'

A political firebrand gets his closeup in Toby Perl Freilich’s 'Moynihan'

“Divided” is a mild term for our current political climate, but it’s certainly not the first time that American government has seen discord. Such was the case, for example, in the heyday of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the veteran politician who served in a number of posts including presidential advisor, Ambassador to the United Nations, and US Senator in a career that spanned over 50 years. A noted intellectual, Moynihan was raised in New York City by a family that struggled to make ends meet, and he spent much of his academic and political career focused on an issue he knew firsthand: poverty . He gained nationwide attention—and widespread controversy—with his 1965 sociological treatise, The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (aka the Moynihan Report), which aimed to draw attention to the toll poverty took on the black family, and drew criticism from many intellectuals, politicians, and members of the public alike. 53 years after the release of the Moynihan report, and 15 years after Moynihan’s death, directors Toby Perl Freilich and Joseph Dorman released Moynihan, a comprehensive and incisive documentary chronicling the life and career of the Washington fixture. Here, Freilich talks to FF2 about digging into Moynihan’s past, revisiting his polemic work, and fighting to preserve his legacy.

 

Rachel Mosely: Why was Moynihan's life and career the next subject that you wanted to tackle in a film?

Toby Perl Freilich:  It’s actually subject that found me. I had worked in city politics back in the 80s and 90s. I was working for a political consultant on Ed Koch's campaign, and in fact, Moynihan had recorded some endorsement commercials for us. And as a New York resident, and as a voter, I just remembered Moynihan. I came from a Jewish home, and if you were Jewish and living in New York, you knew Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  I'm interested in films about transcendence—people who transcend their own self-interest in some form or another and do good. The film I did right before this was a film about the Kibbutz movement in Israel, and about people who were interested in distributive justice, and then came the Moynihan film. Here’s this man who engaged in so many different issues over the course of his very long career, but it was clear pretty quickly that the focus was going to be his lifelong passion on the issue of poverty.

Rachel Mosely: The film shows the controversy of his famous Moynihan Report very clearly. Why do you think his work so divisive? And did you at any point during the process of making the film have the sense that any of his critics had a point?

Toby Perl Freilich:  First of all, I think in politics, you often have so many conflicting agendas. And sometimes there are other people who might be trying to undermine your agenda, because they have another agenda. And also—so Moynihan wrote the report  from January 1965 to about the end of March 1965. By August, it leaked. And by August of 1965, the landscape in the country had shifted dramatically. Liz Moynihan [Moynihan’s widow] says in the film that Martin Luther King, Jr. called him up and said, "Look, I agree with what you say, and I support you, but I can't come out publicly," because there were other movements nipping at his heels. The political winds had changed. I mean, these were flush times—there was enormous prosperity in America, certainly in  the 50s and early 60s. Suddenly there was some focus on poverty, but that focus was really on poverty in places like Appalachia. It was Moynihan who said, "No—there's inner city poverty." He wanted [President Lyndon B.] Johnson to institute a jobs program, And Johnson was like, "No, that's too expensive. I don't want to do that."  The whole thing is rather sad, but that's the way government sort of grinds on. In the film, [Congresswoman] Eleanor Holmes Norton makes a very passionate case for what the critique was. And later, around 2000, there was a Meet the Press. Moynihan and Eleanor Holmes Norton were on the show. And she turned to him and said, "You know, Senator, you were very prescient. The message was right, but you were the wrong messenger." It was a very poignant moment, I think, for him.

Rachel Mosely: Was she saying that he was the wrong messenger because the right messenger would have been a black person?

Toby Perl Freilich:  Definitely. She said to him, "You were a white man."  And then William Julius Wilson, who wrote The Truly Disadvantaged, was one of the first African-American sociologists, if not the first, to basically endorse what Moynihan had said in The Moynihan Report. So by the mid-80s, suddenly the findings of the Moynihan Report 20 years earlier were beginning to find their way back into the sociological world, and achieve some degree of validity.

Rachel Mosely: There were many remarkable interviewees in the film, including Ta-Nehisi Coates. Why did you feel that it was important to feature his voice in particular on this subject?

Toby Perl Freilich:  Well, he's such a clarion for this generation. It was important for us to have someone young—we didn't just want to have voices from Moynihan's generation. We wanted to show that his ideas continued to reverberate, whether they did controversially or not. It was important for us to say, "This is a man whose legacy is still enormously alive and relevant." And Ta-Nehisi Coates is someone who on some issues agrees with Moynihan, and on some issues doesn't agree with Moynihan. It was 2015 and his book,  Between the World and Me, had just come out. I wrote him and said, "Are you going to be in New York here at all?" He said, "Actually, I just moved to Paris, but I'll be coming back to do a book tour in the fall.” And he was really very generous about talking to us. I had read about what he was saying about the Moynihan Report, specifically. And it ran against type. It seemed so counterintuitive that someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates would say, "I don't really have a problem with this—this is the way I read it."

Rachel Mosely: Moynihan died in 2003. Do you think he'd have any sort of effect on this era of partisan tribalism that we're seeing right now? He was known for seeing the other side of an issue, and for compromise. If he was still a senator today, do you think he’d have an effect on the divide?

Toby Perl Freilich:  I think his instinct was always to try to find some way to work with the other side, no matter what. In that sense, he was kind of a born legislator. He worked for four different administrations—two Democratic presidents and two Republican—then he was an ambassador, then he got to the Senate. And if he went to the Senate dining room, he never sat with the Democrats. He always sat with the Republicans. He was interested in talking to them, in hearing what they had to say. And you know, a lot of even the Republican senators whom we spoke to miss him. I think the tone these days is what would probably make him very sad. But I think he would try to find a way to bridge the difference. We need someone like him. We really desperately do. And that was a big motive for the film—to sort of resurrect him for new generations.

Moynihan on the phone in his office at the family home in Pindars Corners, upstate New York, c. 1980.

 

 

 

 

Rachel Mosely: One of Moynihan's most enduring quotes is, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." I imagine that's one of the key concepts that you'd hope people would take away from this film.

Toby Perl Freilich:  Yeah!

Rachel Mosely: Are there other things that you hope people will walk away from this film thinking and feeling?

Toby Perl Freilich:  Definitely. You know, I’ve been working on this  for years, and I get Google Alerts about Moynihan. “Everyone's entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” has been the number one thing that comes up, for years. So that was pretty clear. But there was one comment that one of the aides made that's in the very beginning of the film that I thought was very interesting. The aide told us, "Senator Moynihan always said ‘If you have contempt for government, you will get contemptible government.’" Because Moynihan believed in government.  What he spent his life trying to understand is, how do you calibrate that? What's the right amount of government? Because he didn't believe in just indiscriminately layering it on. He understood that it had to be fine-tuned—that there were some things the federal government did very well, and some things it did not do well. There were some things the state should do, some things the city and municipal governments should do. And that was what he really wanted to understand, and spent his life trying to understand. He was a New Deal Democrat. He saw what Roosevelt had done to help lift people out of poverty during the Depression, and he never forgot it. He said, "I never paid tuition in my life.” He went to college on the GI Bill. So he felt that government was an instrument that can be used, and should be used, to help people. That was a huge, huge takeaway for me. And I hope it'll be a big takeaway for the people who watch the film.

© Rachel Mosely (10/26) FF2 Media

Photos:

Courtesy of the Moynihan Family. 

Courtesy of UN Photo/Teddy Chen.

Courtesy of the Moynihan Family.