Daniel Patrick Moynihan Quotes That Feel Relevant Even Today

Updated February 17, 2022
Portrait Of Daniel Patrick Moynihan With Quote
    Portrait Of Daniel Patrick Moynihan With Quote
    Ron Galella, Ltd. / Ron Galella Collection / Getty Images editorial
    Used under Getty Images editorial license

Throughout his 40-year political career, Daniel Patrick Moynihan worked in five different presidential administrations, became the United States Ambassador to India and U.S. Representative to the United Nations, and was one of the longest-serving senators in American history as Senator from New York. Although he passed away in 2003, his contributions to 20th-century politics live in the form of his enduring quotes.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan Quotes on Free Speech and Human Rights

Daniel Patrick Moynihan strongly believed in a country’s duty to its people, particularly in the realm of free speech and human rights. He often wrote about these issues as intertwined, as countries with free speech tended to have few human rights problems.

  • “The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country.” - Moynigan’s Law, quoted in Skyscrapers, Hemlines and the Eddie Murphy Rule

  • “Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don't. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do.” - Address to the United Nations, 1975

  • “Human rights has nothing to do with our innocence or guilt as a civilization. It has to do with our survival.” - “The Politics of Human Rights,” published in Commentary, 1976

  • “The news is always bad, and that’s a good sign — if the newspapers of a country are filled with good news, the jails of that country will be filled with good people.” - quoted in Skyscrapers, Hemlines and the Eddie Murphy Rule

  • “Human rights is the single greatest weapon we have left for the defense of liberty. It would be calamitous if we allowed ourselves to be robbed of it by the voices of fear and guilt, inside the government or out.” - “The Politics of Human Rights”

Daniel Patrick Moynihan Quotes on Elections and Politics

Although Moynihan was a Democrat, he frequently spoke out against his own party as much (and perhaps more) than the opposing party. He saw the two groups as fallible, but also necessary to the ideological balance of the country.

  • “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.” - quoted in Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary

  • “[The 1972 presidential campaign] was a routine exercise: Republican moralism, Democratic hysteria, voter indifference.” - Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary

  • “No one is innocent after the experience of governing. But not everyone is guilty.” - Secrecy: The American Experience

  • “What is not discussed, will not be advanced.” - quoted by Ralph Nader, CNN, 2011

  • “In the annals of forgetfulness, there is nothing quite to compare with the fading from the American mind of the idea of the law of nations.” - On the Law of Nations


Wit and Wisdom From Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Several of Moynihan’s quips have made their way into history books and modern political articles. His concise, cutting writing style translated to the way he represented both New York and the United States.

  • “The Lord looks after drunks and Americans.” - US News and World Report, 1995

  • “Things become complicated if there are enough people to complexify them.” - New York Times, 1991

  • "First, get your facts straight. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Second, decide to live with the facts. Third, resolve to surmount them. Because, fourth, what is at stake is our capacity to govern.." - “More Than Social Security Was at Stake,” The Washington Post, 1983

  • “Secrecy is for losers. For people who do not know how important the information really is." - Secrecy: The American Experience

  • “There’s no point in being Irish if you don’t know the world is going to break your heart eventually.” - Comments after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 1963


Passing Down Political Profundity

Daniel Patrick Moynihan had an immeasurable influence on today’s politics. For more inspirational quotes from political leaders, check out: