Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Monday, November 22, 2004

Salon.com News | William Safire's dubious legacy Page 3

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

Safire was especially harsh on Hillary Clinton, whom he infamously called a "congenital liar." (He later claimed he intended to say she was a "congenial liar.") "He did what a lot of people did, only with more certitude, which was run leaks from [independent prosecutor] Ken Starr's people saying that Hillary was about to be indicted momentarily. It turned out to be complete rubbish and he never acknowledged it," says Lyons, author of "Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater." "Safire acts like he doesn't have any responsibility to his readers. I think he's hurt a lot of people's perception of the Times. People saw what he was able to get away with, that you didn't have more moral responsibility writing for the New York Times than if you were writing for a small town newspaper. That you could just wing it and never pay a price in public esteem."

Over three decades, many of Safire's loose accusations, each with the potential to end careers inside and out of Washington, have missed their mark. In 1979, for example, Safire claimed in a column that a Korean influence-peddler met House Speaker Tip O'Neill, D-Mass., at the Seoul airport. But Rep. Charles E. Wiggins, R-Calif., who was on the Korea trip, insisted that wasn't so, that the Korean was nowhere in sight, and even told Safire that before the column was published. Safire's explanation to Newsweek at the time: "I was in error."

Newsweek also reported, "In an assault on the U.S. Parole Commission for mistreatment of John N. Mitchell, Safire quotes the chairman as saying Mitchell's sick leave should not count as part of his prison term because 'after all, part of his time had been served lollygagging in bed.' The chairman, Cecil C. McCall, never spoke to Safire." Safire blamed the fictitious quote on a "typographical error made during the Times strike."

In three 1982 columns, Safire all but signed off on the since-discredited theory that the KGB directed the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

In late 1985, coming to the defense of his close friend and McCarthyite Roy Cohn as he was being disbarred in New York for swindling clients, Safire unloaded on a court's decision to release records of the Cohn disciplinary proceedings, tagging them "a cancer of hate." The Safire column ("Buzzards of the Bar") was filled with so many transparent falsehoods and slanderous attacks, obviously fed from Cohn's camp, that the Times had to run a lengthy clarification letter from the lawyer in charge of New York's disciplinary hearings that was 200 words longer than Safire's original column. "It is apparent that before writing his column, Mr. Safire had not reviewed the record of the proceedings," noted the attorney, who was being kind.

Safire admitted to going easy and "pulling his punches" in a 1987 column about his old friend Bill Casey and the major role he played in Iran-Contra during the Reagan administration. (Safire ran Casey's unsuccessful congressional campaign in New York in 1966.) Back in 1981, when Casey was director of the CIA, Safire allegedly called up Casey and urged him to allow Israel to have access to restricted satellite imagery. Casey caved, but was rebuffed by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

Safire denied the charge he lobbied the CIA on Israel's behalf, but he's a fervent and unapologetic apologist for Israel, in particular for its right-wing Likud Party. "He's been substantially to the right of the mainstream of the American Jewish community," notes Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan. In a 1992 Playboy interview he revived a favorite dream of the Israeli right, the idea that Palestinians would somehow leave the West Bank and move to Jordan. "I consider myself pro-Palestinian," Safire said. "I'd like to see them have a state. I think the state they should have is Jordan, which is mainly Palestinian." Safire said that only King Hussein of Jordan stood in the way: "I think he's an obstacle to peace." Hussein was "an obstacle" because he had renounced all claim to the West Bank in 1988, leaving the so-called "Jordanian option" irredeemably dead -- although not in Safire's eyes or that of the Israeli right.

Safire's passionate commitment to Israel has led to some serious reporting gaffes. As Alterman notes in "Sound and Fury," when Israelis destroyed Iraq's nuclear plant in 1981, Safire quoted "Baghdad's official newspaper" which allegedly insisted the targeted reactor was to be used against "the Zionist enemy." In fact, the quote was manufactured by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. And in 1991 when a group of Israelis were murdered in Egypt, Safire wrote that the PLO "condoned last week's slaughter," when the Times itself had documented several instances that week of the PLO denouncing the attack.

More recently, Safire's column has doubled as an open forum for Israel's far-right Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. As the Israeli paper Haaretz noted this year, "Safire has an open phone line to Sharon and tends to interview him by giving him an open platform with virtually no interference."

"One of Safire's major accomplishments was to rehabilitate Sharon in the American political discourse after he was sent into the political wilderness," says Cole. Sharon was disgraced after Israel's Lebanese Christian Phalange allies methodically massacred hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including women and children, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, following Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon -- an invasion masterminded by Sharon. An Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for the slaughter and he was removed as defense minister.

Safire's devotion to Israel may be one reason he turned on the first President Bush, who earned the wrath of Safire, Israel and the powerful pro-Israel lobby by threatening to hold up $10 billion in loan guarantees if Israel did not stop building settlements in the occupied territories. During a 1991 press conference Bush the elder famously complained he was just "one little guy" battling the "powerful political forces" of the Jewish lobby in Washington, D.C.

Whatever his reasons, Safire all but declared war on Bush in 1992, hyping the now-forgotten "Iraqgate" -- "the first global political scandal," as he breathlessly proclaimed it. Safire, along with ABC News' "Nightline" and other journalists, charged that the Bush administration had secretly and illegally plotted to arm Iraq and then orchestrated a cover-up. Safire dubbed it "an election year Watergate," insisting, "Never before in the history of the Republic, in my opinion, has the nation's chief law enforcement officer been in such flagrant and sustained violation of the law." In a column titled "Is the Fix In?" Safire charged that President Clinton and Al Gore -- who had made much of the Iraqgate charges during the campaign but stopped raising them after assuming office -- had been paid off to shut up. "George Bush privately assured Bill Clinton that he would not criticize the new President during the first year of his term. ... Mr. Bush has kept his word," Safire wrote. "In what may be an unspoken quid pro quo, the Clinton Administration has moved to quash any revelations about Bush's Iraqgate scandal. ... No wonder we hear not a peep of criticism about Clinton from Bush; the former President and his men are being well-protected by Clinton's appointees in Justice." "


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