Thursday, October 1, 2009

Remembering William Safire

I am uncomfortable speaking ill of the dead, so I will begin my comment on William Safire by noting that my late friend Frank Carvill once said that the Times columnist was the only right-winger he ever wanted to drink beer with. I know what he means: there was a humor to Safire that made him stand out among conservatives. Unfortunately, there was more to the man.

For my money, Safire rarely strayed very far from the mentality of a flack: bending the truth, attacking the enemies of his client, and gleefully poisoning a debate before he would see his side lose.

Of course, Safire was famous for his libertarian streak. To some, this makes him look like a man who knew how to balance extremes, a shrewd thinker who intelligently took no fixed positions. This line of thought could be particularly popular among journalists: admiring Safire made them feel like independent spirits who could admire liberals and conservatives alike--thereby inoculating themselves against the charge that they were knee-jerk liberals.

I'll give credit to Safire for opposing the Patriot Act. But the plain fact is that he spent the bulk of his career promoting the worst tendencies in the USA and Israel.

On Israel, he famously followed Ariel Sharon at his worst. Safire, who was never near a battlefield in his life, called himself a shtarker--a tough guy. In fact, he did as much as any American journalist to encourage the Israeli occupation of the West Bank that so undermines Israel's present and future.

In the US he was a wordsmith to Spiro Agnew, who helped launch Nixon's war on the press that continues to this day. And when Richard Nixon resigned rather than face the music on Watergate, Safire started the habit of calling every political scandal a "gate." In this way, he diminished the gravity of Watergate and contributed to the demonization of politics. Both the war on the press and the denigration of politics continue to coarsen our public life today.

But it was in the latter years of his career, in the runup to Iraq, that Safire committed what was to me his greatest crime. In the Times, he used his column to promote the idea of a link between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Al Qaeda--thereby making and invasion of Iraq look like an appropriate response to 9/11.

There turns out to be nothing to Safire's claim of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link. Nevertheless, this claim helped justify a disastrous war in which thousands, American and Iraqi, died unnecessarily. One of them was Frank Carvill.

2 comments:

Peter Eisenstadt said...

Rob, a great post. You know, as conservatism became a dominant ideology in this country, one of the reasons was they found spokespersons, like Safire, Buckley, and Reagan, who seemed personable and friendly, rather than scary and alarming, and in the case of Safire and Buckley, often very clever and intelligent. (And the fact that George W. Bush couldn't provide this facade is one of the reasons for the failure of his presidency.) But a facade is a facade, and behind the bemused, witty persona of Safire was the continuing fanaticism of movement conservatism, and as you note, the damage that Safire wrought, especially in the Middle East, will take decades and decades to unravel.

one of the most important reasons why conservatism

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