Washington, D.C, 1970
In 1970, we were still in the “pre-pill period”, and the projected rapid growth in the U.S. population, particularly in the cities, was a subject of major concern. President Nixon appointed a special study group, consisting of academic demographers, sociologists and economists, chaired by the President’s Assistant Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Moynihan was the “House Democrat” in the initial Nixon White House. He had established a national reputation as an expert on urban affairs. He was also recognized as the “egghead” in the White House- brilliant, possibly scary to liberal Republicans and positively frightening to conservatives. But he had the ear of the President. From him came the Nixon advocacy of a negative income tax for the poor and the Family Assistance Plan.
A new emphasis on the problems of the cities had been indicated by the President’s establishing the Urban Affairs Council, composed of cabinet officers and chaired by Moynihan. (In honor of attending the ceremony, I have a plaque of the Presidential order, together with a signing pen. To the best of my knowledge, the council never held a meeting.)
From a public relations standpoint, Moynihan was most widely known for his advice to the President that the problems of the urban poor be treated with “benign neglect”. He was very good at fashioning clever sounding policy-type phrases.
As with many inter-departmental issues, I was the Commerce Department’s representative to the population study group. The early meetings consisted of seminars and the presentation of learned papers by the academics. It was an excellent graduate-level learning experience on population trends and immigration.
In the course of our work, I became engaged in a sort of written exchange with Moynihan on the significance of immigration in our national population growth. Looking at the gross figures, he had come to the conclusion that immigration composed about 25% of the future increase in population. Working with the same figures, I had arrived at 12%. One of us was making an error in arithmetic, and I was sure it wasn’t I. I was also trying to point out that immigrants often brought with them certain productive attributes, so that their impact needed some qualitative weighting. Our “exchange” consisted of my memo and his returning of it with a one word written negative reaction.
President Nixon suddenly walked in on one of our study group’s meetings, saying to Moynihan, “How is the work coming?”
“Mr. President,” Moynihan said, “We have just found that immigration accounts for 25% of our national population increase.”
I was immediately tempted to set the record straight and to make a smart sociological statement, but Nixon took care of the matter much more effectively.
I never want to hear that figure,” he said, “If Congress ever gets that word, they’ll move to close the doors and I want kept them open!”
With that, he walked out.
It was the first time I had ever seen Nixon other than from a distance or on television. This was clearly a different person: quick-thinking, decisive and right. I was greatly impressed.
For some reason, the population study group closed up shop shortly thereafter.