September 27, 2009


    -OBIT: William Safire, Nixon Speechwriter and Times Columnist, Is Dead at 79 (ROBERT D. McFADDEN, September 27, 2009, NY Times)

Behind the fun, readers said, was a talented linguist who could not resist his addiction to alliterative allusions. There was a consensus too that his Op-Ed essays, mostly written in Washington and syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, were the work of a sophisticated analyst with voluminous contacts and insights into the way things worked in Washington.

Mr. Safire called himself a pundit — the word, with its implication of self-appointed expertise, might have been coined for him — and his politics “libertarian conservative,” which he defined as individual freedom and minimal government. He denounced the Bush administration’s U.S.A. Patriot Act as an intrusion on civil liberties, for example, but supported the war in Iraq.

He was hardly the image of a buttoned-down Times man: The shoes needed a shine, the gray hair a trim. Back in the days of suits, his jacket was rumpled, the shirt collar open, the tie askew. He was tall but bent — a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on.

Typical of a New York Times house conservative, he endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992. But his book, Freedom, is terrific.


    -OBIT: Pulitzer winner William Safire dies at 79 (AP, 9/27/09)

    -Columnist Biography: William Safire (NY Times)

    -TIMES TOPICS: William Safire

    -WIKIPEDIA: William Safire

    -GOOGLE BOOKS: William Safire

    -GOOGLE BOOK: Freedom by William Safire

    -REVIEW ESSAY: Reviews of New Lincoln Books: Lincoln Monuments (William Safire, NY Times Book Review)

    -REVIEW: of NO PLACE TO HIDE By Robert O'Harrow Jr. (William Safire, NY Times Book Review)

    -REVIEW: of A GOOD LIFE Newspapering and Other Adventures. By Ben Bradlee (William Safire, NY Times Book Review)

    -REVIEW: of MAN OF THE HOUSE The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill. With William Novak (William Safire, NY Times Book Review)

    -REVIEW: of WILLIAM COBBETT The Poor Man's Friend. By George Spater. Two-Volume Set (William Safire, NY Times Book Review)

    -REVIEW: of ERIC PARTRIDGE IN HIS OWN WORDS Edited by David Crystal and WORDS FAIL ME By Philip Howard (William Safire, NY Times Book Review)

-TRIBUTE: In Memoriam: William Safire (1929–2009) (Jacob Neusner - 09/27/09, First Principles)
-TRIBUTE: Remembering Bill Safire (Morton Janklow, 9/28/09, Daily Beast)

    -PROFILE: WILLIAM SAFIRE: Prolific Purveyor Of Punditry (WALTER SHAPIRO, Feb. 12, 1990, TIME)

    -PROFILE: Apres Safire: Up from the ghetto. (Jonah Goldberg, 11/23/04, National Review)

For decades he was the only conservative at the Times, nominal or otherwise — which made him one of the country's most influential conservatives. Simply by adopting an argument he made it credible. When, for example, he tackled the fishiness of Vince Foster's suicide (or I should say the fishiness of the Clinton White House's reaction to it) he automatically made this line of inquiry credible in the eyes of the establishment media. With his writing talent and reporting skills he did invaluable service in the same cause our own Bill Buckley launched nearly 50 years ago: making conservatism not merely respectable but admirable.

I don't want to discuss Safire's motives because I don't know what they are. But I do know that he loved to declare that he was taking a position not because he necessarily believed it, but because it was the "contrarian" position. A quick Nexis search finds nearly 40 columns in which he essentially bragged about or celebrated being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian. And there have been countless others in which he may not have used the word, but the same spirit moved him. Now, I like contrary thinking, but contrary thinking for its own sake isn't admirable, it's silly: "Everyone says two plus two is four; I say it's a monster called Gamblor!"

More to the point, contrariness for its own sake is not remotely conservative. Conservatism is most often a defense of settled truths, not an instinct to topple them willy-nilly for entertainment value.

Again, I don't want to psychoanalyze. But by constantly calling himself a contrarian or — as he often did when convenient — a "libertarian," by going for the pun rather than the punch, for bending-over backward to appear "reasonable" and nonpartisan, Safire at times gave the impression that he wasn't comfortable calling himself a conservative. He endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992 (no doubt in part because he wanted a Pulitzer for his unending BCCI columns) on the grounds that George H. W. Bush was a liar. This was a bit like courting Helen Thomas because Cameron Diaz has bad skin some mornings. Safire was a godsend for conservatives when he was originally hired by the Times — which happened, ironically enough, in part because Safire had written Vice President Spiro Agnew's "nattering nabobs of negativism" speech. And he has done heroic service. But he is a hero of an old war.

    -ESSAY: The Safire tirade (William F. Buckley, Jr., 4/10/87, National Review)

    -PROFILE: The Propaganda of William Safire (David Corn, 2/25/04, The Nation)

    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: William Safire (Charlie Rose, PBS)

    -ARCHIVES: "william safire" (Find Articles)

    -REVIEW: of Freedom by William Safire (William S. McFeely, NY Times Book Review)

IT is a courageous author who begins a thousand-page novel with a learned discussion of a legal writ, but William Safire has done just that. Abraham Lincoln, alone in his capital in April 1861, senses that the city is as defenseless as he himself feels. To correct matters, he takes the bold, perhaps illegal action of suspending the writ of habeas corpus so that rebels in Baltimore, obstructing the passage of troops to Washington, can be jailed. In his courtroom in Baltimore, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney tries to force the Chief Executive to honor the civil rights of even those who would obstruct troop movements. Without backing down, the man in the Executive Mansion shrewdly avoids a direct constitutional confrontation with Taney.

''Great men grow in power,'' Secretary of State William Henry Seward declares early in ''Freedom,'' announcing its theme. From that moment on, we follow the President as, hand over hand, he grasps the elements of power necessary to win a war, though that victory lies beyond the book's close. If the Constitution needs bending, he will bend it.

The plot is familiar. We follow Lincoln in the first 21 months of the Civil War as he changes from a man determined to restore the Union without disturbing slavery to one committed to abolishing the institution in order to achieve reunion.

With his engrossing tale well told, a writer candid enough to call his history fiction would seem to have granted himself immunity from scholarly criticism. But the author's subjects - freedom, war, power - are too important to escape such scrutiny and questions arise whether we view ''Freedom'' as a study in politics, a novel or history, although it can be read as all three.

Many novels of the American Civil War, which saw the devastation of a vast region, bring to mind Tolstoy's ''War and Peace,'' but reading ''Freedom,'' my mind ran to Trollope and ''The Prime Minister.'' There is, of course, in an account of the mustering of sufficient force to fight a war growing more savage with each battle, little room for the Englishman's gentle, witty irony, but the scenes in Mr. Safire's book are remarkably reminiscent of Trollope's. At Francis Preston Blair's country seat, political arrangements are made; in Kate Chase's parlor (and bedroom) sex and power meet; in the house of a notoriously alluring hostess, Rose Greenhow, intrigue (to the point of lethal spying) occurs; and, finally, in the Executive Mansion, all power is gathered into one pair of strong hands.

It is not surprising that a one-time Presidential aide turned Washington columnist (for this newspaper) should have chosen the capital, and not the battlefield or beleaguered countryside, as his central canvas. On this, Mr. Safire has crowded vividly drawn Congressmen, generals, confidants and Cabinet members, all trying to impose their will on the President. (Interestingly, it is a woman, Anna Ella Carroll, the formidably aggresssive political theorist and military strategist, who comes closest to succeeding.) What the author achieves as a novelist is an imagining of motives and a depiction of personal tensions, as Lincoln, resisting those impositions, finds his own objectives and imposes his own will on the nation.

    -REVIEW: of Freedom (James W. Tuttleton, Commentary)

To anchor his novel in a sea of swirling facts, Safire provides the reader with a long appendix of 150 pages that he calls the “Under-book.” There he presents the historical sources of his imagined scenes, confesses to what is real and what is invented, provides a bibliography of Civil War readings, and clarifies the debates of the historians over the political meaning of Civil War events. Repeatedly in this appendix we are told things like: “The interview with [Benjamin] Wade is fictional, but Lincoln's dialogue is taken from his letter to Orville Browning.” Or “Some of my mind reading of [Salmon P.] Chase is fictional, and several meetings are telescoped into two, but on the whole the chapter is based on [Gideon] Welles's diary.” Or “Fiction. That is what I think Lincoln was thinking in late May 1862.” This stratagem, which allows us to discriminate between the actual and the invented, also delivers Safire from the charge of misleading readers and falsifying history for the sake of his plot.

But is the result historical truth? Since many readers are likely to get their information about the Civil War from novels like Freedom rather than from works of history, there is something ethically responsible about Safire's alerting us to where he deviates from the factual into the imaginary. In doing so, however, he is also implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of the distinction, and paying obeisance as well to some ideal of historical truth which he as a novelist is trying to serve with no less devotion than would a professional historian. In all this Safire seems grandly oblivious to the attack, within the discipline of history itself, on the adequacy of any narrative history to tell the truth about the past.

For too many current historians, a historical narrative is itself a work of the imagination. An instance is the view of Hayden White of the University of California at Santa Cruz who complains in Tropics of Discourse (1978) that people are reluctant “to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences.” For historians like White, it is naive to “expect that statements about a given epoch or complex of events in the past ‘correspond’ to some preexistent body of ‘raw facts.’” For White, all historians are novelists; and all history is an imaginary construction of found facts. Given such views, is it any wonder that the discipline of history is now collapsing into subjective ideologies and tending toward cognitive nihilism?

Luckily, Safire is innocent of this kind of academic skepticism. He may argue about the meaning of past events, but the existence of historical truth as such he never calls into question. Just as the responsible narrative history can tell a truthful story about the past, so the well-researched historical novel can recreate the continuity of intimate human relations, personal psychology, and public events. Happily indifferent to the inanities of current historical theory, Safire gets on with the task.

    -REVIEW: of Freedom (Joe Mysak, National Review)

    -REVIEW: of Scandalmonger by William Safire (Thomas Flanagan, NY Times Book Review)

    -REVIEW: of Scandalmonger (Katharine Whittemore, Salon)

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 27, 2009 6:55 PM
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