William Safire: Wars Made Out of Words

"There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance." What Mencken said of Coolidge can be reversed in the case of Safire. There were plenty of thrills, and after the thrills, the field was littered with casualties. And he had tons of ideas. He was keen to share them as soon as he thought them up. The career that took him from public relations to propaganda to column-writing was a single seamless progression. He treated these different lines of work as the same work; and under his hand, they were. He was interested in words, yet he has left behind no sentence or sentiment that people will quote in the future merely because it is true.  

He never met a war he did not like. He did all that he could to drum up several wars beyond the psychological means of his country and the world; and his disappointment could turn to spite when a war that he wanted failed to materialize. Jimmy Carter’s refusal to bomb Iran in the years 1979-1980 was the greatest defeat of Safire’s life. His record on Vietnam (both during and after), on El Salvador and Nicaragua, and on Iraq would be worth combing the archives of the New York Times to recover, simply as an exhibition of savage consistency. Safire was not the originator of the psychology of the self-righteous onslaught, "ten eyes for an eye" — human nature found it long ago — but he was the American of his generation who almost made it respectable. Did a terrorist set off a bomb in a café and five Americans die? Send in the Air Force and demolish a foreign capital somehow connected with that terrorist. The flash of the violent gesture, for Safire, was more important than the justice of the action.    

He became the leading practitioner of the gestural politics of journalism. And in doing so, he revamped the accepted manner of the New York Times columnist. No more the formality and reserve and the magisterial airs of a James Reston; everything now had to be fast and sharp: keep the pot boiling and the gags popping. He was the first man of the right to leaven his moralism with jokes. With fun and "pace," with plenty of euphemisms, and with calculated self-deprecation he did more than anyone else to legitimate a reactionary president, Ronald Reagan, as a new kind of centrist. A considerable sleight-of-hand.  

His columns fashioned from dialogues with Richard Nixon when living, and his channeled mock-dialogues with Nixon when dead, were a prodigy of bad taste. A related genre he pioneered, the imaginary monologue of the man of power that aimed to reveal the motives of the powerful, betrayed Safire’s curious want of invention. He made no effort to convey the manner and savor of the person he  ventriloquized. The monologues all came out sounding like Safire (just as the quoted persons in a Woodward political chronicle all sound like Woodward). But this insider genre fitted the new Times like a glove. Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd picked up the format and both now perform it with as little concern for tone and shading as Safire. 

Perhaps the ruling passion of his life was a need for violent stimulants. He sought, and craved, excitement — the thrill of the battle of everyday politics, the thrill of the slander and smear, the thrill of wars. He was equally drawn to wars of the past, wars simmering at present, and wars in prospect for the future. This love of gross sensations Safire aimed to impose as much as possible on his readers. More important, he aimed to impose it on the men of power whom he wished to influence. And often enough he succeeded. Kenneth Starr, on the brink of quitting the Whitewater investigation, was rebuked by Safire in such humiliating terms that, rather than defy the columnist, he launched the country on the long march toward impeachment.  

Safire attended to Nixon’s post-retirement fame by shining as decent a light as could be thrown on it, and he kept Nixon’s posthumous fame in as good repair as the facts allowed. These exertions suggest a large investment of his own amour-propre. He would not let anyone forget that he was part of the Nixon White House, but he encouraged readers to suppose that time spent there had been happy and not shameful. Among living politicians, he cultivated a particular admiration for Ariel Sharon. Has the oddness of this relationship ever been adequately noticed? A general who became the head-of-state of a foreign power, implicated in a brutal massacre, was puffed as a wise man by a popular American journalist. Safire sought to persuade Americans that the adventurer of the Lebanon War was our old friend "Arik." His reports of phone conversations with Sharon, like the columns he devoted to the elevation of Sharon’s achievements, have no precedent in American journalism, not even in the high days of Anglophilia when Winston Churchill evoked sentimental feelings beyond any warrant from his conduct.  

In person, it seems that Safire was not a brawler; no fighting stories about him have surfaced. But he had the fondness of the born propagandist for "bloody noses and cracked crowns." He served in the army as a correspondent, during a time of peace, yet he loved the idea of combat. The higher the stakes, the more zest it added to life. He smashed hard without a second thought, and could be wrong with impunity, as Wen Ho Lee, Mohamed ElBaradei, and a multitude of others can attest; and yet we are told that he was a pleasant fellow, and was known in after-years to dine with his victims.  

As a writer, Safire is most often associated with the short bursts he wrote in speeches given by Vice President Spiro Agnew, before Agnew was forced to retire under a cloud of charges by the U.S. Attorney in Baltimore: extortion, bribery, tax fraud, and conspiracy.  "Nattering nabobs of negativism" was a phrase in a speech of November 13, 1969. It suggested that critics of the Vietnam War were as rich as nabobs and as mindless as chattering apes. A trick from the lower drawer of Kipling, it served its reckless purpose in heating the resentments of the time. Safire’s other best-known phrase, "an effete corps of impudent snobs," had been given to Agnew to speak just a month earlier at the time of the October 15 peace moratorium. Here the effect bordered on punning — a favorite device of his for disarming criticism — since effete brings elite into the ear without having to pay for the echo. He turned out other squibs in the same mood that helped to corrupt the public mind, and to break the public peace in America at a time of internal strife. His picture of the defense of civil liberties as "pusillanimous pussyfooting on the critical issue of law and order" has the true Safire touch — clever, punchy, alliterative, demagogic. 

This pattern, by which zealous accusations are dealt out sharply, but mixed with a vein of buffoonery, is a staple of the far right in America that has never been properly described or accounted for. It has been with us at least since the time of Senator Joe McCarthy; and it would be surprising if William Safire in his early days did not nurse an admiration for McCarthy. More polished than McCarthy or Nixon, and by the time of his death a lion of the establishment, Safire is the link that across four decades connects the political style of Joe McCarthy with that of Rush Limbaugh. 

Under the heading "William Safire’s Finest Speech," it is now possible to locate, on line, a speech Safire wrote for Nixon which offers the most perverse imaginable illustration of political opportunism.

It was written to order for an occasion that never arose. It said what Nixon ought to say in case the astronauts of Apollo 11 were stranded on the moon. In this counter-factual elegy, drafted on June 18, 1969 and sent to Nixon’s aide H.R. Haldeman, the author of Safire’s Political Dictionary, contrived to bury the dead while they were living. "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace." Thus, in the time he could spare from enlarging a war half a world away, Safire contrived to speak for the people of the planet in the voice of a truce from outer space: the astronauts would "be mourned by a Mother Earth who dared to send two of her sons into the unknown." A final blessing was uttered on behalf of a species now at last united in our prayers to the sky: "Every human being who looks up to the moon in nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind." A superstition, a kind of piety maybe, would have restrained many speechwriters from undertaking a preposterous assignment like this, no matter how warmly it was urged, no matter by how powerful a boss. Yet the dying fall of the final clause epitomizes Safire’s facility.

Rupert Brooke, a poet of the First World War, wrote in the opening lines of a poem that Safire must have learned in school, "If I should die, think only this of me;/ That there’s some corner of some foreign field/ That is forever England." Compare "some corner of another world that is forever mankind." He fished up the sob of the shining line from his stock quotations to send the astronauts to their eternal rest. But consider the deeper poetry of the moment. The man most gifted in his time at summoning a literate audience to twitch, heave, and submit to the voice in the megaphone without regard to the man behind the curtain, had been asked to bury the first explorers of space. And what came into his mind? A paean of self-sacrifice lifted from the high age of Europe’s empires. The astronauts, as Safire saw them, were soldiers of the next empire. It is good that they lived to make this speech unnecessary. But it is good, too, in a way, that we have this speech — a lasting testimony of the limitless ambition of mere words.