Back in New York, working at the Schenectady Gazette newspaper in the state’s Capital District, I was typing away on a story one day when I heard the newsroom door open behind me.
“Excuse me,” said a voice I knew from somewhere, “I’m looking for Tom Woodman (the opinion editor).”
I turned in my chair, “Yes, he’s up one more floor … Senator Moynihan!”
It’s not every day a lion of the Senate pops into your newsroom, but there he was — Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan — just as suddenly disappearing with a quick “thank you” and heading on up for his meeting with the editorial board.
The liberal Democrat, who worked with Senators on both sides to get things done, came to the newspaper to talk about the vital need to reduce the national debt.
This was 1987, when the debt reached $3 trillion. A year earlier, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rochester, Moynihan delivered a powerful speech titled, “The Moral Dimensions of a Two Trillion Debt.”
He cited history — how the nation’s leaders in the past had run deficits to pay for wars or emergencies, then worked diligently to pay down that debt.
He talked about how it was no longer wars and emergencies driving up debt but politically driven consumption, and there was no longer an urgency to pay it down because people seemed to like the arrangement just fine.
A Catholic, he invoked the Bible, back when you could still do that, saying Christianity teaches the virtue of self-denial and “warns against the terrible cost of discounting future rewards in favor of present ones.”
It was, he argued, immoral to squander the financial security of future generations, and it was foolish and risky to spend so much now that we might be unable to meet a true emergency later.
Both parties like to blame each other, but both are guilty of running up the debt.
In the years that followed, people listened to Moynihan and others who were sounding this clarion call. Sort of. They passed various legislation to balance the budget, but lawmakers would always find a way around it.
And then, after briefly balancing the budget under a Democratic president (Bill Clinton) and a Republican Congress — in the late 1990s dot-com boom, they just stopped talking about it.
Were he with us today, Moynihan could retitle his speech “The Moral Dimensions of a 22 Trillion Dollar Debt.”
Today, we have President Donald Trump and some two dozen Democrats running for president in 2020 — and no one is talking about the debt.
There’s plenty of talk about things upon which to spend money. No talk of spending less money.
The economy is thriving, and we have a deficit of more than $1 trillion. If we have huge deficits in prosperous times, what will happen in bad times? In an emergency?
Daniel Patrick Moynihan was right about many things — and the national debt was one of them.
William P. Warford’s column appears every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.