Salon.com News | William Safire's dubious legacy Page 1
The departing Times columnist says he's proudest of his reporting. Looking over decades of his false accusations and erroneous assertions, it's hard to see why.
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By Eric Boehlert
Nov. 22, 2004 | Most newspaper reporters would really rather be columnists, free to pontificate instead of chasing down quotes. So why does New York Times pundit William Safire want to be remembered as a reporter? And given his track record, is that such a good idea?
Following the Monday announcement of his pending retirement after more than three decades of writing his influential "Essay" column, Safire, in interview after interview, signaled what he hopes his legacy will be -- reporting. "It's perfectly okay to do a straight, thumb-sucking column, and some do that," he told the New York Daily News last week. "I personally prefer to get on the phone and work some sources." Boasting to the Boston Globe, he added, "I helped move along the idea of opinionated reporting."
Top Washington columnists have always done some reporting, sprinkling their work with inside nuggets from trusted sources and making predictions about how Beltway conflicts will play out, with the added advantage of having talked to the senior players involved. But Safire is different for two reasons. The first is that he calls so much attention to his reporting, relentlessly reminding readers that he's working the phones. The more significant difference, however, is that Safire consistently goes beyond informed speculation, making serious accusations that have all too often turned out to be baseless. From Bert Lance to the war in Iraq, Safire has been wrong more times than you can count, yet the instances in which he has acknowledged his errors in print can probably be calculated on two hands. (He's written well over 2,000 columns.)
Like a pioneering blogger, Safire years ago starting grabbing bits of information and wrapping them in the tightest partisan, what-if spin possible. When the accusation unraveled, he'd simply ignore the thud of his charges hitting the floor. The only difference is he wasn't tapping away on a laptop in his pajamas, but writing for the most prestigious Op-Ed page in the country.
"If a pundit sticks his neck out, he ought to have it chopped off if he's consistently wrong," says John Dean, who worked along Safire in the Nixon White House -- Safire as a speechwriter (he coined the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" for Spiro Agnew), Dean as Nixon's house counsel.
Nonetheless, Safire is regarded as a newspaper giant of his generation. Among the Times' honored columnists, "he's right there in the pantheon of the immortals," says Susan Tifft, coauthor of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times." "He proved himself for two reasons. He breaks news from time to time and he's not predictable. In the age of partisan opinion, you had to read him because sometimes you agreed with him and sometimes he made you apoplectic."
Safire's unpredictability has mostly centered on his aggressive defense of civil liberties. The columnist, who was once bugged by the Nixon White House, parted company with most of his fellow right-wingers in criticizing the Bush administration's curtailing of civil liberties after 9/11. Safire also struck an independent note in arguing against media consolidation: He's attacked Bush-appointed FCC chairman Michael Powell for pushing it forward.
In large part because of his occasional unpredictability and his lively writing, Safire has won admiration from readers across the political spectrum. "I think Bill has been one of the best columnists in the last 20 to 30 years," Haynes Johnson, former liberal columnist for the Washington Post. "He's a bright, challenging, stimulating columnist."
He is also respected by many readers for his entertaining and erudite weekly column about language, which runs in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and which Safire will continue to pen.
Yet for all of his talents, over the years Safire has clearly abused the column -- by presenting highly questionable propositions as if they were accepted facts, making baseless accusations against public figures (often with the insinuation of criminality), and wielding the column with alarming transparency as a blunt instrument to settle personal scores and prop up his allies, both here and abroad.
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