A few days ago, while on vacation, I read in The New York Times where the late senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has a book coming out of his letters. The book is entitled, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary. Public Affairs Press is publishing the book next month. The book was edited by Steven R. Weisman, a former reporter for The New York Times who is now the editorial director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Excerpts from this book appeared this week in New York magazine.
In his private–and not so private letters–Moynihan takes a whack at quite a collection of individuals and institutions. He didn’t like Hillary Rodham Clinton’s smugness, thought Spiro Agnew was a demagogue, and complained to Brooks Brothers about the holes in their socks. And then he wrote that the Peace Corps was full of elitists.
Well, that got my attention.
You’ve got to like Moynihan. While working for Nixon in the White House he received $5 from a man in Georgia who told Moynihan to get a haircut and complained that President (Nixon) was destroying “the white people of the South.”
Moynihan replied, “It would not be appropriate for me to use the money for personal adornment or otherwise, but I do mean to add it to my annual contribution to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.”
Anyway, back to the Peace Corps. In his letters, he described the Peace Corps as “a rip-off by the upper middle classes. Fortunes spent to send Amherst boys for an interesting learning experience in Venezuela,” paid for by “men equally young pumping gas on the New Jersey Turnpike.”
I’m not sure how Moynihan paid his way through college. He grew up in Hell’s Kitchen on the west side of Manhattan, a place so completely Irish, he said, that he didn’t really learn he was Irish until he joined the Navy. It was a tough place, Hell’s Kitchen, and I believe Moynihan’s father owned a bar, and that Pat worked there as a young kid before he went out to make his way in the world.
I have to check to see when that letter mentioning the Peace Corps was written by Moynihan, but before I joined the Peace Corps in 1962, I already had a variety of teenage jobs, from country club caddie to pumping gas, (in the Midwest, not New Jersey,) paid my own way through college, not Amherst or Ivy, but a mid-west Catholic college, and served a tour in the Air Force. No one would be wild enough or wrong enough to call me upper middle class or elitist, coming as I did off a family farm in Illinois.
In fact, when I page through the pages of the old mug book of the 275 plus PCVs who served with me in Ethiopia from 1962-64 I am struck how middle-American we all were, how few of us graduated from elite schools, and what a cross section of Americans we all were.
It is also interesting to note that the former Peace Corps Volunteers who have gone onto become directors of the agency did not attend ‘elite’ colleges. Carol Bellamy (Guatemala 1963-65) went to Gettysburg College. She is from New Jersey and I asked her once what her father did for a living and she said he had been an electrician. Mark Schneider (El Salvador 1966-68) went to Berkeley; Ron Tschetter (India 1966-68) went to Bethel University in Minnesota; and Aaron Williams, (Dominican Republic 1967-70), our current director, went to Chicago State.
Not of these (with the possible except of Berkeley) rate as Ivy or near Ivy.
Pat Moynihan got a lot of things right in his life, but he was all wrong about who joins the Peace Corps.