As the Monitor is only too aware, having received a fair number of admonishing e-mails on the subject, this column has disappointed at least some readers with what one called its “shameful silence” on the subject of William Safire in the weeks since the former New York Times columnist passed away in late September.
Guilty as charged. Frankly, though, at this point there’s not much left to say that is either original or insightful about a man whose career has been so thoroughly assessed by both admirers and detractors.
Safire’s move from the Nixon White House to the op-ed page of the Times, where he perched for better than three decades as its token non-liberal, has been well documented, as has been the initial hostility he faced from his illiberal liberal colleagues at the Times.
His polemical skills were complemented by his grammatical dexterity; indeed, his weekly “On Language” column became a Times fixture, read, respected and happily argued with even by those who could not abide the views he expressed in his Pulitzer-prize winning political column.
His books – collections of his language columns, historical novels, a meditation on the biblical story of Job, and his magnum opus, Safire’s Political Dictionary – were all well received. He was a popular guest on the Sunday morning talk-show circuit.
While dealing with the dilemma of trying to come up with a belated tribute that would not merely repeat what had already been said, the Monitor stumbled upon some of Safire’s columns on the Middle East from the miserable Jimmy Carter years. The prescience of those columns – their surprising timeliness all these years later – stands as a tribute in its own right to the man who wrote them. A few examples will suffice:
In a column dated May 24, 1976 – a year before Israel elected its first Likud prime minister, six years before the first Lebanon war, eleven years before the first intifada – Safire was complaining about “Dovish writers and longtime liberals, including many Jews, who are uncomfortable with positions of strength, and who urge the beleaguered Israelis to adopt appeasement under the labels of ‘accommodation,’ ‘flexibility,’ and ‘risks for peace.’ ”
How things never change.
From the same column, thirty years before anyone would hear of Walt and Mearsheimer: “Hating individual Jews does not make you a bigot. Being anti-Israel does not make you a bigot. But undertaking a crusade to persuade the American people that they are being brainwashed and manipulated by a cabal of Jews who sit astride most of the channels of communication, and thereby encouraging an irrational hatred of Jews – that makes you a bigot.”
In October 1977, after Carter responded to critics of his administration’s decision to convene a U.S.-Soviet conference on the Middle East by claiming he’d accomplished a diplomatic miracle of sorts because the Soviet Union up till then had “never recognized the right of Israel to exist,” Safire, normally a man with little positive to say about the Soviets, took the ignoramus to school:
Not only has the Soviet Union repeatedly recognized the right of Israel to exist, the Soviets were the first to recognize the state of Israel…. Through two breaks in diplomatic relations, the Soviets have continued to recognize Israel as a state, and therefore its “right to exist.”… How, in light of 30 years’ continuous recognition, and with hundreds of Soviet restatements of Israel’s right to exist, could President Carter say “they have never recognized the right of Israel to exist”?Okay. Now the Official Correctors will explain that, um, you see, the president “misspoke.” But he does not misspeak; he misthinks. His foot is not so much in his mouth as in his mind. Mr. Carter really believes he has bargained the Soviets into recognizing Israel’s existence.
Despite his status as the Times’s House Conservative, Safire was politically unpredictable; his positions on social issues were significantly to the left of the Republican base and he supported Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election over the Republican incumbent, George Herbert Walker Bush.
Of course, Bush’s coolness toward Israel was a major factor in Safire’s defection. Safire never apologized for his support of Israel. Responding to criticism of his close relationship with former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, Safire once said, “I don’t feel the least bit ashamed or embarrassed about presenting [Sharon’s] views, because they are my views. Actually, mine are a little more hawkish.”
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org