Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Monday, November 22, 2004

Salon.com News | William Safire's dubious legacy Page 4

Salon.com News | William Safire's dubious legacy: "William Safire's dubious legacy | 1, 2, 3, 4

Iraqgate vanished when a Clinton administration investigation found no evidence that the elder Bush had armed Saddam Hussein. (Of course, if you believe Safire was right and the fix was in, this doesn't prove anything.) Writing in the American Lawyer two years later, Stuart Taylor methodically outlined how Safire's reckless charges were completely bogus: "False. All of it." (The Pulitzer Prize committee saved itself a repeat of the Lance embarrassment by not awarding Safire a prize for Iraqgate, even though there was industry speculation in 1992 that he might win.)

Iraqgate simply served as a precursor to the box-full of Clinton scandals (Travelgate, Whitewater, Filegate, Gore's fundraising, China spies, Wen Ho Lee, etc.) that Safire kept unpacking, and unpacking and unpacking. Here are just a handful of his more memorable, breathless and false entrees:

"If by the first week in October Attorney General Janet Reno does not seek appointment of Independent Counsel, she may well be the first Cabinet member since William Belknap in 1876 to be impeached."
"What did Vince or Web or Bill or I bill Whitewater or McDougal? Were those records shredded? God, I hope so." (Safire, writing the column in the voice of Hillary Clinton.)
"During President Clinton's watch, America's most vital nuclear secrets -- guarded intensely for five decades -- have been allowed to spill out all over the world."

Last week Safire told the Washington Post he wanted to retire while he's "still hitting the long ball." But even some admirers suggest Safire this year has been unusually partisan and predictable, rolling over for the Bush White House. "During the campaign it seemed he became Bill Safire the old speechwriter," notes Haynes Johnson. Specifically, he says Safire has looked the other way in regard to Iraq. "There's a great deal of concern among conservatives over the premise of the war and the impact and its legacy. I would've liked to see Bill challenge Bush more."

But to do so would have meant Safire would have to admit his own gross miscalculations about the war, from the buildup to the reconstruction supposedly now underway. Writing about Saddam Hussein's stockpile of WMD in late 2002 and early 2003, "Safire, as usual, was absolutely confident and absolutely wrong," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "His unique kind of reporting was to make things up. And Safire never acknowledged his mistakes. He just shifted gears like the lunatics on right wing radio: 'Did we say weapons of mass destruction? Oh, we meant Saddam's mass graves.'"

"He was a ringleader among all the columnists and pundits who helped lead us into the war," adds Michael Massing, author of "Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq."

In November 2001, Safire, leaning heavily on the flimsy evidence of a purported meeting between 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, wrote about the "undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks." "Intrepid journalists," Safire predicted, "will ultimately bring the full story of the Saddam-bin Laden connection to light."

They did, at the New York Times -- whose reporting debunked the alleged terror summit: "Prague Discounts an Iraqi Meeting." Asked about the discrepancy, Safire told the Washingtonian magazine last year, "If I say undisputed, that's not right. It is disputed." But he added, "I don't feel the need to correct the record until the facts become clear."

In the year since that answer, the consensus view of journalists and the intelligence community is that the meeting never took place. Yet Safire has never corrected his column about the "undisputed fact." That, despite the fact that the Times this year instituted a new, supposedly get-tough policy for columnists, insisting, "If one of them makes an error, he or she is expected to promptly correct it in the column."

In that sense, Safire's retirement is well timed."


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