William Safire's debt to Gorbachev

Ray Jenkins

December 31, 1991|By Ray Jenkins

TWO WEEKS before Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union, New York Times columnist William Safire opened his column with the following sentence:

"Revealing the true colors of a tyrant, Mikhail Gorbachev now seeks to thwart the democratic will of the independent republics his former empire by bidding for the support of the veteran Red Army generals." The ostensible basis for this arrant nonsense was the fact that Gorbachev had held meetings with his military commanders. By that criterion, Safire as easily could have written that George Bush was plotting to become a "tyrant" for meeting with Gen. Colin Powell.

Moreover, it was apparent to anyone who follows the news that the Soviet Union was already in its death throes, that Gorbachev was simply negotiating the perilous labyrinth of transferring the awesome power which still lay at his fingertip -- the power to fire nuclear missiles.

Now, William Safire, an amateur wordsmith, surely knows that the word "tyrant" is the most odious term that can be applied to a leader; it is worse than "dictator," because dictators can be benevolent; tyrants are only cruel and capricious. So Safire's vicious slur against an honorable man cannot go unchallenged; it is, frankly, the equivalent of a vulgar racial or religious epithet.

Those of us who admire Gorbachev and his historic contributions to mankind -- and that seems to include virtually every world leader -- can do without lectures on "tyranny" from William Safire, a man who so dutifully served Richard Nixon and who has, as far as I know, never repudiated that service.

But for the record, let it be noted that Mikhail Gorbachev made it possible for millions of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, while Richard Nixon once ordered a census of Jews in the U.S. Labor Department for the presumed purpose of keeping an eye on "subversives" -- at a time when Safire was working for Nixon.

Let it be further noted that Mikhail Gorbachev opened the corridors of the Kremlin itself, while Richard Nixon kept secret "enemies lists" of American citizens, including journalists -- at a time when William Safire was dutifully serving our only president ever pardoned for crimes.

By any rational definition of the word "tyrant," Richard Nixon came closer to filling the bill -- at the time William Safire was faithfully serving him -- than Mikhail Gorbachev ever dreamed of becoming.

On the contrary, Gorbachev is the first man in history to enunciate -- and indeed, act upon -- a remarkable new policy for a national leader: "The use or threat of force can no longer be used as an instrument of foreign policy."

Have we ever heard, from any national leader, a clearer or more explicit rejection of the use of force? Can we imagine what better a place the world would be if all leaders acted upon this principle?

Yet this is the man William Safire calls an incipient "tyrant."

It is difficult to fathom what could make a man who is ostensibly learned in the subtle nuances of language engage in such an egregious abuse of words. I can only conclude that Safire and kindred souls simply represent a fanatical mind set of a dwindling band of "experts" who genuinely hate Gorbachev because (1) he deprived them of a cherished enemy and (2) he destroyed the basis of their alleged expertise.

For my part -- and I'm convinced that the world shares this view -- I shall be ever grateful that Mikhail Gorbachev lived and served. As I watched him resign last week -- a bit misty-eyed, I readily confess -- one thought stood out.

I remember those awful days during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. I felt acutely vulnerable because I lived in a city where there was an important Air Force base which was certain to be a prime target in a nuclear exchange. At the height of the crisis I happened to notice my two sons, who were then 1 and 4, romping on the den floor. It suddenly struck me that these two happy children faced a very real prospect of being atomized at any moment -- without ever knowing what hit them, much less the reasons they were killed. It was the only time in my life that I have ever experienced stark terror -- genuine, inescapable, helpless terror.

We now know that we barely escaped that nuclear exchange, but we still had to live for another 25 years under the base fear that the terror could return on a moment's notice, for the stupidest of reasons.

I now have a grandson who is the age of his father at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. But because of Mikhail Gorbachev, my grandson will not have to grow up under the pervasive shadow of nuclear war as his father did.

So I -- and yes, William Safire, too -- owe an immense debt of gratitude to this man who was one of those who J. Edgar Hoover so tirelessly warned us was the devil incarnate, an "atheist communist."

And indeed, all the world owes that debt. I hope that one day Safire can find a degree of forgiveness for his gross libel of calling this great man of peace a "tyrant."

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