Ballot Box

Moynihan Speaks

Endorsements are the frozen tundra of presidential politics–unvarying, without interest, and seemingly infinite. Every day, the presidential campaigns spam reporters by e-mail and fax with reports of the latest, on the order of yesterday’s news flash from Austin, Texas: “New Mexico Lieutenant Governor Endorses Governor Bush.” To actually read these press releases is to risk stupor. Front-runners rack up endorsements by the bushel because endorsements are mostly about who is likely to win–and thus be in a position to pay his endorsers back.

An exception to this rule was today’s endorsement of Bill Bradley by outgoing New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan is the state’s most senior and revered elected official. His endorsement carries a lot of sway with Democrats in New York, who, according to the most recent polls, are now split evenly in their allegiance between Gore and Bradley. With the March 7 New York primary shaping up as a pivotal test for Bradley, this matters. Moynihan’s approval means something nationally as well. Alone among New York politicians, he has respect and influence on the other side of the Hudson River. Though his endorsement of Bradley was anticipated, he delivered it with deft timing in the midst of a Bradley surge, giving his pal from the Senate Finance Committee a significant boost.

The event, which was held at the 92nd Street Y, better known for poetry readings and chamber music concerts, was a classic Moynihan performance. Dressed in his Harvard Club finest (a once-elegant pin-striped suit, college insignia tie, silk pocket square), he shambled to the lectern with a copy of Bradley’s book Time Present, Time Past in hand. Looking slightly bewildered by the TV lights and reporters, he began by reading aloud from a dust jacket blurb by Cornel West that praised Bradley as a “respected statesman.”

Moynihan then quoted a passage from the book in which Bradley praises … Moynihan. Part of the fun of watching Moynihan is that you seldom have any idea what he will say next–and neither does he. Today, however, Moynihan didn’t get himself into any serious trouble. After a brief discursion about Woodrow Wilson, Moynihan credited Bradley with bringing about the tax reform of 1986, then kept talking and couldn’t stop himself from pointing out that this legacy has since been entirely erased. He then shuffled back to his seat and allowed Bradley to graciously accept his endorsement.

Once the floor was opened to questions, a reporter asked Moynihan, “What’s wrong with Mr. Gore?” Moynihan rose and made his stooped, deliberate shuffle back to the microphone. “Nothing is the matter with Mr. Gore except he can’t be elected president!” Moynihan chirped, before turning on his heel and scurrying back to his seat. As sound bites go, this was just about perfect, a tiny dagger pitched into Gore’s sternum.

“Why not?” rose a universal cry from the assembled reporters, as Moynihan exited the stage. Laughter engulfed the audience.

The professor returned to give his reasons some minutes later. “Do you want a list?” he asked, to more tumultuous laughter and applause.

“Yeah, we want a list!” cried out one of the hacks.

“I think we have to go back to Van Buren to find a vice president who succeeded as the president.”

“GEORGE BUSH!” roared the press corps, delighted to detect such an elemental boo-boo in the professor’s usually unassailable pedantry.

“And, and, and George Bush,” Moynihan stammered. “It’s a rare and unusual event. George Bush was a wonderful man who really got Ronald Reagan’s third term.” If Moynihan has anything to do with it, Al Gore will not get Bill Clinton’s.