William Safire: Tactics Over Truth

William Safire bought me lunch once.

There. That's a William Safire leed. Has nothing to do with what I'm really going to write about, but it situates me as being a Player. 'Course, when Safire has the personal item it's a signal he's going to be nice to the guy (it's almost always a guy) who was nice to him.

I’ve been reading Safire since he started at the Times. He does have some good qualities as a writer. For example, I think his book on Nixon, Before the Fall, is vastly under-rated. (It begins with meeting Nixon in a Moscow kitchen, the location of the famous Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debate where Safire was the pitchman for the kitchen-manufacturer. You can see the famous picture Safire took of the debate here.) The book reads like it started out as a piece of puffery, and then took a sharp turn when Safire discovered that Nixon’s Kissinger had bugged his phone.

After all, if Nixon and Kissinger were nuts enough to suspect even true-blue die-hard loyalists like Safire, then maybe there was something wrong with the Nixon administration after all. Not everything, mind, but something.

So the end result is a very readable insider’s book, more balanced than you might think, with plenty of musings on the layercake that was Nixon, and great anecdotes about all the folks who get famous later in the Watergate hearings.

Plus I like his Lincoln book. Not as much as I like Gore Vidal’s, but I like it.

OK. That paid for lunch.

I read Safire’s column regularly. Not because I think it’s accurate. Not because my blood pressure really needs the stimulus. But because it’s so transparently tactical.

Today’s column, Never Love a Stranger is a prime example of the genre. Naturally, no Safire column would be complete without some germ of truth. Here, it's used up in the opening: there doubtlessly are a lot of DC insiders who are not pleased at the idea of a Dean victory. Outsiders can be threatening.

But after that, it's all tactical positioning in which Safire transparently (do you think he thinks we aren't on to him?) tries to define, or mis-define, the folks he dislikes. You know that the Republicans must actually be worried about Dean if Safire feels a need to try to label Dean as McGovernite (pity this meme turns up in more sensible places too). It ought to be tough to paint a balanced-budget guy whom the NRA likes as a McGovernite, but I guess that’s the strategy; or the tryout at least. (Note how Safire subtly denigrates the balanced-budget Democrats as (1) all being for it, so it's not interesting, and (2) worrying that Bush will luck out and there will be a boom.

And of course, there’s yet another outing for that Republican pet dream, Hillary for President. Republicans would love that — run against the candidate with the high negatives. Odd thing is, there are no Democrats supporting this plan, but that doesn’t stop it being a Safire hobbyhorse.

I wish Safire would turn his gifts to actual reporting, instead of constantly trying to (mis)characterize things. But perhaps his formative years as a pitchman for kitchen goods just left too strong a mark.

And even though Mr. Safire bought me a nice lunch at the Army-Navy club, he never wrote the column I was trying to interest him in. Seems the Republicans he called told him ICANN was about privatization, so he couldn't be against it. Tactics, again.

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4 Responses to William Safire: Tactics Over Truth

  1. Pingback: DFMoore: Your Daily Dose of Pizzazz!

  2. Alan Gregory says:

    Although it may be private I need to inform William Safire a possible subject for an article.

    Do you know the best way to reach him?

    Thank you,


  3. Michael says:

    He can be reached via the NYT Washington office. Call — you’ll get through to his secretary when you ask for him, and he’ll get your message eventually.

  4. Novella Maia says:

    Where can I find a copy of his sarcastic poem about John Dean, titled something like, “The Saga of Gunga Dean”? I was a Republican in those days, and remember reading the lengthy poem in his column during that time.

    Safire was a Nixon apologist when Watergate hit the fan, and now he’s an apologist for Bush.



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