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Paul Offner

It's strange that the only two eulogies I've had the sad occasion to write on this site have been for people who influenced me in very similar ways -- in their concern about poverty and the life prospects of poor people, and in their sense of humor: a few months ago, I wrote about Marc Miringoff; yesterday, I learned that Paul Offner had died. I hadn't been in touch with Paul in perhaps eight years, but for a time, when he was working on welfare and health issues for Senator Moynihan, and I was doing the same for Senator Bradley -- whose first question on these issues was inevitably, "What does Moynihan think?" -- we spent a lot of time together.

Paul left Moynihan's staff to run the District of Columbia's Medicaid agency in the Marion Barry administration: one of those job moves that indicates either such total disgust with your current job that you are willing to do absolutely anything, even a job that's designed for failure, or else it's an expression of both confidence and an overwhelming concern for others, such that you are willing to take a huge risk in order to turn around an agency on which many thousands of lives depend. For Paul, it was certainly the latter, and the Post treats his turnaround of that agency as the centerpiece of his career.

But there had been a certain amount of frustration in Paul's work for Moynihan, mainly deriving from the fact that, while his colleagues looked to Moynihan as their resident expert on welfare and social policy, and as the author of the 1988 welfare reform act, when the issue heated up, the great man was absent. I wrote about this several years ago in reviewing a biography of Moynihan. It is a strange episode. Even many Republicans were looking to Moynihan for leadership, and all Moynihan would do was periodically hold up a chart of rising rates of out-of-wedlock births in various Western countries, which really had little to do with anything.

Paul's own relentless intellectual activity on welfare and also health issues offset Moynihan's awkward ambivalence, and his confidence was reinforced by the fact that he actually knew how welfare worked, having been the human services commissioner in Ohio, as well as a state legislator in Wisconsin. So, on his own, he wrote a series of brilliant articles in The New Republic, which had only one downside: the Clinton administration, which was obsessed with improving its relationship of maximum feasible misunderstanding with Moynihan, interpreted the articles as if they were subtle directives from the desk of the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee chairman. But that was their mistake. The articles, persuasive as they were, represented no views other than Paul's, and did not pretend otherwise. Their value was that they were a good guide to what the right policy would be.

In Bradley's office, we not surprisingly used the metaphor of "moving without the ball," to describe the kind of things that you would do to move forward on an issue when the Senator himself was engaged with something else. It often took some nerve and creativity to move without the ball, and Paul was a good example of how it could be done.

This is a minor sidenote, though, in Paul's long career of true dedication to the public and to making public programs work. Paul had -- again in healthy contrast to Moynihan's pessimism -- a sort of Midwestern faith that government programs could be made to work to give people security and improve the life chances of their children. And he had a faith that knowledge and learning what works, rather than ideological slogans, were the way to make public programs succeed. That faith will have its day again in this country; it is sad that Paul Offner won't see it.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 23, 2004 | Permalink


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Thanks for writing this. While I never met Offner I thought he performed an important function in DC's policy world. He wrote clearly about subjects he understood. This was almost unique. If he made a point about a particular program you knew that it was motivated by a desire to make the program work better and not out of a need to push for a particular political line or pump himself up. Too much of what gets published on the op-ed pages of the Times and Post is little more that prejudice -- no reporting and no research. Not so with Offner's work.

Posted by: ruth fleischer | Apr 25, 2004 1:49:15 PM

Thank you for the lovely eulogy for my husband. I will add it to a book I am creating for our three year old daughter.

Molly Collins Offner

Posted by: Molly CollinsOffner | Apr 26, 2004 8:16:54 PM

This comment seems inappropriate after Molly Collins Offner's response to your eulogy of Paul.

But I want to say something about Senator Moynihan. I checked back to the Prospect article you linked. My first encounter of substance with Senator Moynihan was in the early 90's. It was a fundraising lunch of Women for Moynihan. At One in the afternoon, he was already not sober. And he kept drinking as he pulled out a yellowed piece of newsprint with those very same teenage birth statistics in the black community. Usually when a constituent speaks with an elected official, they pretend to listen and care about your opinion. Not Moynihan. Using that article he proceeded to give me a lengthy mini lecture on minority cultural irresponsibility. I personally never saw him sober. I asked others if they had seen him sober recently. I did not get positive responses.

I think his inability to be an effective legislator who actually got things done in Congress in his last years was due to the debilitating effect of his drinking on his energy and thought processes. I am amazed at the degree to which the press had protected him and to this day protects him. Those rosy cheeks and nose were not sunburn.

Posted by: Debra | Apr 27, 2004 1:58:38 AM

There are not many people in public service who have Paul Offner's qualities of superior analytic ability, absolute intergrity in expressing and acting on his policy conclusions, and determination to keep engaging in the most important public issues from so many different angles and positions. I knew Paul best when he was a graduate student and later when he was State Senator from LaCrosse, Wisconsin and I was working in the state Department of Health and Social Services for Manny Carballo, another brilliant public servant who died much too soon. After that, I had to settle for Paul's New Republic and other writings and occasional meetings in Washington or New York to be refreshed by his forceful arguments, sharp wit, and constant focus on what mattered in social policy. Hard to believe that there will not be any more of that.

Posted by: Jack Krauskopf | May 4, 2004 11:08:46 PM

I learned only recently of Paul Offner's passing. I knew him when he was medicaid director in DC. A very very bright and interesting man in a political morass that may have amazed even one used to the machinations of capitol hill. I am sadden by his loss.

Posted by: Lori | Aug 22, 2004 8:09:30 PM