Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Monday, November 22, 2004

Salon.com News | William Safire's dubious legacy Page 2

Salon.com News | William Safire's dubious legacy: "William Safire's dubious legacy |

Safire explained his opinionated reporting approach this way in an Oct. 31, 2002 column: "A columnist should play a hunch now and then, taking readers beyond the published news, using logic and experience to figure out what may be happening now or to predict what will happen soon. Win some, lose some."

"I practice opinionated reporting too," says Gene Lyons, columnist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. "But I don't pretend to know things I don't know. It seems people on the Times Op-Ed page can make up their own facts."

Safire, through an assistant, declined to be interviewed for this article, and Editorial Page editor Gail Collins did not respond to queries.

The questions being raised about Safire now, albeit against the backdrop of widespread professional admiration, are not unlike the reservations expressed when he made his unlikely debut at the Times 31 years ago. After working as a combined P.R.-radio-newsman for the famed broadcaster, publicist and political strategist Tex McCrary, Safire went to work for the Nixon White House. He fortuitously departed in the spring of 1973, just before the Watergate scandal took down Nixon's presidency. (Safire's last day in the West Wing, Wednesday, March 21, was the same day that Dean famously huddled with Nixon, telling him, "We have a cancer close to the presidency, that's growing.")

At the time, the Times' publisher, Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, was looking for a conservative voice for the opinion page. Sulzberger's hiring of Safire infuriated editorial page editor John Oakes, who "made it his practice never to see or speak to [Safire] unless he had to," according to "The Trust."

Safire's column had an underwhelming debut. "Safire had begun inauspiciously, accusing Nixon's critics of being McCarthyites and calling on the President to burn the White House tapes," wrote Eric Alterman in "Sound and Fury: Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics." Informed after two years on the job by his Times bosses that the column was not working out, "Safire went back to his office, sat down at his desk, put his head in his hands, and wondered how the hell he was going to save his job. Then he looked up and, lo and behold, saw his salvation: the telephone." He'd go back to his newspaper roots.

"So I think at that point something happened in my development as a writer," Safire told a radio interviewer in 1977, the transcripts of which were dug up last year by Washingtonian magazine. "I stopped sucking my thumb and staring at the wall and started getting on the phone and getting out and talking to people and trying to find out why this was going on."

"Lance," wrote the Washingtonian, "was the new Safire's first victim."

In 1978 Safire won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of columns attacking president Jimmy Carter's White House budget director, Bert Lance, for allegedly commingling his own bank dealings with his work for the government. Safire's high-profile broadsides in the Times -- "Broken Lance," the "Lance Cover-Up," "Lancegate" (Safire writes his own column headlines) -- were instrumental in forcing Lance's resignation. Lance's scalp signaled Safire's transformation from a Nixon hack into a big-league pundit, a player. But the Lance scandal itself, like so many of Safire's crusades over the years, was mostly smoke and mirrors.

"The fact is a lot of what he was saying turned out to be crap," recalls Hodding Carter, who served as State Department spokesman during the Carter administration. Even the ultra-conservative American Spectator exonerated Lance, noting, "Eight federal agencies -- the FBI, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the SEC, the Federal Election Commission, the IRS, the FDIC, the Federal Reserve, and the U.S. Senate -- conducted investigations of Lance and found nothing."

In his 1992 book, Lance says when he finally confronted Safire in person, the columnist replied, "We didn't want you to become chairman of the Fed." (Lance also noted he and Safire subsequently became friends. "Safire's gentlemanliness has gone a long way," says Tifft.)

"That was the tenor of the times," notes Jody Powell, Carter's White House press secretary. "The Lance story was just a couple years after Watergate and I think, generally speaking, there was a inclination on the part of journalists to show they could be as tough on a Democratic president as they were on Nixon, without regard to the facts." (When Safire won the Pulitzer for his Lance takedown, Powell quipped, "And people think the dollar has been devalued.")

That newsroom trend peaked during the Clinton scandals of the '90s, when Safire was zero-for-eight years in chasing Clinton scandals. Looking back at the roughly 800 bi-weekly columns Safire penned during Clinton's years in office, it's hard to find a single one of the issues he returned to obsessively -- hush money, obstruction of justice, perjury charges -- where Safire was vindicated by the facts. But Safire paid no price at all for being wrong again and again. He simply fired blank ("At some point, apologists for the President will have to stop calling Whitewater 'a cover-up without a crime'"), after blank ("Say Clinton is taken down on a RICO count"), after blank ("The author of the [Lewinsky] talking points will most likely be found [and] is in real danger of going to jail"), only to be toasted by his colleagues inside the Beltway establishment for his persistence in squeezing the trigger. "

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