Appreciation: William Safire crossed minefield from politics to journalism
William Safire will, perhaps, be remembered for the wrong things. That happens to pioneers, and he was one, traversing the once inviolate border that ran between the roles of political functionary and journalist.
As a young man, he had crossed another boundary long assumed: that American Jews would, to their core, remain liberals and to act otherwise was, at its kindest, an eccentricity.
Mr. Safire was a Jewish conservative well before Irving Kristol strayed from the liberal tradition to found neo-conservatism. Mr. Safire wasn't neo-anything. He adopted his philosophy without theatrics, without transformation and without second thoughts. He took his political beliefs as an article of faith and he performed, perhaps, the greatest mitzvah a struggling Richard Nixon ever received.
Mr. Safire was doing a promotional stint at an exhibition in Moscow 50 years ago, when he steered both Mr. Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev into his client's "typical American kitchen." Mr. Nixon and Mr. Khrushchev leaned on a railing and debated the virtues of the Soviet and American standards of life at a time there could really have been no debate at all.
A desperate AP photographer lobbed his Speed Graphic over the heads of the leaders and Mr. Safire snapped the famous photo. The sensation cannot be overstated, even though it is lost in the mist of a half-century. Mr. Nixon was vice president at a time when the job was largely ornamental. Here he was, defending American values, right down to the appliances, with the man who had promised to bury us all.
It is entirely plausible to argue that the 1960 presidential nomination was settled, at least in the minds of Americans, in a fake kitchen in the capital of the Evil Empire. And Bill Safire not only set it up; he chronicled it.
A year later, William Safire -- who added the "e" to the family name, Safir, to clear up pronunciation issues -- was inside Mr. Nixon's circle.
That circle, with its mix of political skill and poisonous infighting, was a strange place for a man such as Mr. Safire. He joined Mr. Nixon out of clear beliefs: that Richard M. Nixon embodied the sense of America as the fixed point in a world spinning between tyranny and anarchy.
Possibly his most daring act was to author a memoir, "Before the Fall." Published in 1975, it seemed an instant anachronism. Mr. Nixon had resigned in disgrace a year earlier, felled by Watergate.
The book took a detailed, often dispassionate, look at the workings of government and, along with Harry McPherson's "A Political Education," set the standard for such memoirs. Others would follow -- self-serving, dirt-throwing tomes, epitomized by the catchpenny works of many Reagan administration aides. Mr. Safire told people how the Nixon administration worked and wasn't afraid to point out that, when it wasn't breaking fundamental laws, it worked pretty well.
By then, he was a New York Times columnist, a conservative with a fascination for the power of language and a right-winger who somehow understood that the Times is so much a part of the establishment that its editorship should require Senate confirmation hearings.
He used his column to promote books written by Times reporters and was unfailingly loyal to Times reporters, taking it as a matter of faith that the Times version of any story was superior to the one produced by the paper's rivals, especially The Washington Post.
He saw the Times as the great journalistic meritocracy and was oblivious to the political wars that raged inside the newspaper. A quarter-century ago, he sat down beside a young Times reporter on the Eastern shuttle from New York to Washington. When he learned, just before takeoff, that the young man had been forced off the newspaper, Mr. Safire did not exchange another word with the former Times man for the remainder of the flight.
He was an unusual member of the capital power structure, favoring puns and sappy jokes -- and the clever wordplay, which was the genre he made a Washington sport. His former colleagues found the timing of his death yesterday poignant; his favorite event of the year was the annual break-the-fast party at the end of Yom Kippur, which occurs at sundown later today. His annual breakfast event was populated by members of the political and journalistic elite; former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger was a regular attendant. And yet he was generous with his invitations; even the lowliest Jewish members of the Times Washington bureau were invited to share lox and bagels with senators and capital grandees.
Mr. Safire's transformation from political insider to Washington pundit -- a term he personally used and enjoyed -- presaged a flood of crossings. He did so early, and he did so with such success that it's easy to forget that he made his passage not over the corpse of Richard Nixon, but on a path lit by Mr. Nixon's brightest deeds.
Bill Kovach, who headed the Times' Washington bureau when Mr. Safire was hired, remembered being upset at the selection. It violated Mr. Kovach's sense of the separation between politics and journalism.
Mr. Safire won the bureau over in two ways. At a picnic, he alone noticed that the small child of one of the reporters had fallen into a swimming pool. He ran to the scene and, fully clothed, jumped in and saved the child.
He did something else, too, that matters a great deal in the trade. Mr. Kovach tells it this way:
"Within six months he turned out to be one of the best, unassigned and unpaid reporters in the Washington bureau. He found leads on stories and matter that were not necessarily used in his column that he'd pass on to me or to reporters in the bureau.
"He was an extraordinary reporter."
He became a reporter. In a business demonized by, among others, his former boss, earning that title meant everything. In political circles, his passing will seem a minor thing. Among his new peers, it will matter with a weight hard to measure.
First Published September 28, 2009 12:00 am