Monday, November 15, 2004

Safire's Mixed Legacy

It's difficult today to really describe the depth of outrage incited among the nation's chattering intellectual classes when the New York Times decided to give William Safire his own column on the editorial pages way back in 1973. These lifetime appointments to journalism's choicest real estate are often likened to spots on the Supreme Court, and for good reason: there are only a handful available, they can be taken away only for gross malfeasance, and they bring with them tremendous power and influence over national affairs.

And here one of these precious sinecures was being handed over to a Nixon speechwriter, a contemptuous little flak with an outer-borough accent, no less! You'd have thought the Sulzberger family that owned the paper had committed journalistic treason, opening its pages to the enemy (one Timesman back then famously observed that it represented the worst decision since Roman emperor Caligula appointed his favorite horse proconsul of Rome). But the times at the Times then seemed to demand such a move: the paper's very viability was in serious doubt in the early '70s, and it was thought that millions of potential readers, conservatives, needed their own voice on the paper if they were to become regular readers. And so the reign of Safire began, a key part of conservative editor A.M. Rosenthal's larger overhaul of the paper.

That 31-year-old experiment, which had decidedly mixed results, is finally coming to a close. Word comes this morning that Safire will write his last column soon after the new year (though he'll continue to write for the NYT magazine and continue his On Language column). Of course, the conservative slot remains: his place has been taken by a younger replacement, David Brooks, a far better reporter and a man who has rightly been called the liberals' favorite conservative writer, for his moderate, invective-free manner of imparting his equally conservative philosophy.

Over the years, Safire won over plenty of former enemies with his language column (which many considered witty and literate, but which always struck me as a tad pedantic) and especially with his ringing defense of civil liberties. But Safire has more recently been an embarrassment to the paper in other ways: for his silly habit of clinging to hoary conservative chestnuts even after they've been demolished in the paper's news columns. Chief among these was the report about 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta's meeting in Prague with a top Sadaam aide, which served as the supposed smoking gun of Iraq's Al Queda ties until it was disproved. Safire's stubborn insistence on clinging to this version even after many in the White House had dropped it has revived an old debate about whether opinion columns should be fact-checked when even elemental factual rules seem to be breached.

Slate's brilliant media critic Jack Shafer may have hastened the columnist's demise. Widely read in the media and respected by just about everyone for his wit, erudition and fairness, Shafer has been a frequent Safire's hound dog. He drew blood again earlier this month with this devastating critique of Safire's latest imagined jihad, in which he posits a silly election-eve conspiracy among the media. With some simple reporting, he undercuts Safire's premise, making the old goat seem even more ridiculous than usual. That may have been the last straw for the proud family-owned paper, which since the Jayson Blair debacle is finally beginning to respond to criticism in measured, intelligent ways that are steadily restoring its luster.

Anyway, I obviously won't miss the old Nixon hand's loonier reporting-challenged columns--roughly half of them, I'd say--where he seems to relish playing the part of the skulking investigative reporter, clad in trench coat, listening in on his dense network of sources. But I will terribly miss his unstintingly aggressive defense of privacy, where his own libertarian views and his time spent watching Nixon's scheming up close combined to make him a forceful advocate for keeping the government's nose out of citizens' private lives to the maximum extent possible. Let me be the first to note here that the official announcement of the end of his column comes precisely three years to the day after what was perhaps his proudest, most important column ever: a November 15th, 2001 piece in which he called the outrageously ill-advised Patriot Act a piece of legislation which "amounts to dictatorial power," helping to launch a powerful backlash against this codification of overreaction to post-9/11 hysteria.

His is a mixed legacy, for sure. But on the whole, I think the country would have been far poorer without his steady voice in support of our civil liberties. It's as if your elderly, loony tunes uncle periodically interupted his incoherent babbling to deliver an eloquent, perfectly pitched defense of American democracy. You'd be amazed, and suprised. And also delighted.


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