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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Scholar-Senator Moynihan Dies at 76

By Laura L. Krug, Crimson Staff Writer

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former Harvard professor of government, senator, ambassador to India and the U.N., and assistant secretary of labor died in Washington last Wednesday of complications of an appendectomy. He was 76.

Moynihan’s prolific writings on race and politics in America made him a controversial yet widely-respected figure in politics and academia.

Former University Marshal Richard M. Hunt described Moynihan as an “incredible intellectual figure who had so many ideas about so many things.” Moynihan served as assistant labor secretary during the administration of President John F. Kennedy ’40, also a Crimson editor, and was an urban affairs adviser to President Richard M. Nixon.

He was Nixon’s ambassador to India in 1973-1975 and served as chief U.S. delegate to the United Nations in 1975-1976.

Moynihan taught at Harvard from 1966 to 1977, starting as director of the Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard and MIT, and later teaching in the government department.

After winning a senate seat in New York in 1976, he returned to Cambridge to teach his government seminar “Ethnicity in Politics” the day after his victory celebration.

Students knew Moynihan as much for his absence from Cambridge as for his presence here. He spent about half of his time as a professor on sabattical or shuttling between Washington and Cambridge.

Moynihan, who wrote or edited 18 books, was well-known for his studies of American race relations.

In a 1965 report to President Lyndon B. Johnson titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” commonly known as the “Moynihan Report,” Moynihan pointed to the increase in the number of single-parent families as a fundamental reason for poverty and instability in African-American communities.

The report earned him the wrath of civil rights leaders who accused him of racism and of holding African-Americans responsible for their own problems. Those accusations would dog him through his first senate race in 1976, when he defeated veteran Republican Senator James L. Buckley. He was re-elected three times.

In a statement issued last Wednesday, University President Lawrence H. Summers remembered Moynihan as a man “at the center of national and international debate on some of the most important and difficult issues of our time,” who “made profound contributions both to the life of the mind and the life of the nation.”

Hunt, who organized the University’s Commencement until last year, said Moynihan’s 1976 Commencement speech was filled with “ideas and eloquence.”

Hillary R. Clinton, D-N.Y., who won Moynihan’s senate seat in 2000, spoke of his ability to recognize the problems facing the country.

“Time after time, he could see our nation’s next pressing challenge—and its solution—even when it was decades away from our own national conscience,” Clinton said in a tribute to Moynihan on her website.

Indeed, Moynihan’s prescience showed through at times like his 2002 Commencement speech, a pointed half-hour talk in which he warned of the present and future dangers represented in the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

“We are indeed at war, and we must act accordingly with equal measures of audacity and precaution,” Moynihan said.

He is survived by his wife and three children.

—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at krug@fas.harvard.edu.

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