William Safire puts in a few good words for dissidents

November 02, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

WASHINGTON — No one said being a Joban was going to be easy.

"The Joban life is the life spent maintaining personal convictions," William Safire writes in his newly published book, "The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today's Politics."

And here it was on a Wednesday, less than a week before Election Day, and he was doing what any number of good citizens have done recently: Discussing who would get his vote for president.

The problem was that Mr. Safire, the influential political columnist for the New York Times, had peeked behind Door No. 1, Door No. 2 and Door No. 3, and hadn't liked any of the choices. He announced his displeasure in a long Oct. 18 cover story in the Times Sunday magazine, and the piece contained this killer sentence: "Yet here am I, a lifelong Republican, a card-carrying conservative, a right-wing pundit with foursquare opinions on anything you can name -- with two weeks and two days to go before a national election -- and not yet sure about which hole in the card to punch for President."

But now, during a lunchtime interview, he allowed he had made up his mind. "I decide for good this afternoon, in the column I'm working on -- I've got it in my head," Mr. Safire, 62, said cryptically, tapping his cranium. "I've just got to write it."

The discussion went on to other things -- back to the Book of Job, which had drawn his curiosity more than 40 years ago, when Mr. Safirewas an undergraduate at Syracuse University. Back to his love of words, manifested in "On Language," his enormously popular Sunday column about words and their use. "I love them because they're my tools," he said. "I regard [words] like a carpenter regards his tools." Asked which writers are his favorite stylists, his first choice was Baltimore novelist Anne Tyler, "because she writes such graceful paragraphs."

And back, again and again, to politics, an early and still powerful love of his. Mr. Safire was a speech writer for Richard Nixon in the late '60s and early '70s; since 1973 he has written his column for the Times, as well as two novels and several books on language and politics. He has seen politics inside and out, as a Republican partisan and as a member of the media. And the enthusiasm hasn't waned.

His appearance doesn't suggest he's a major player in Washington journalism. Mr. Safire is a decidedly casual person, dressed in bland shades of brown that suggest what Ward Cleaver might have become in late-middle age. In conversation, he's genial and witty, but seldom delves into areas that might be considered emotional or personally revealing.

But his love of the grand show of American politics, his marvelous use of the language and his independence has made him a force in Washington, and in journalism.

"He's one of the heroes of my book," says Eric Alterman, author of the recently published "Sound & Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics," a scathing look at political journalism. "I disagree with almost everything Safire believes, but I have enormous admiration for his skill as a reporter and his abilities as a stylist. But most important, he's an honest man.

Always an independent

"People are shocked by how hard he is going after Bush on the Iraq case [Mr. Safire has criticized the administration for its policies toward that country before the gulf war]. "They shouldn't be. He's always been independent."

Mr. Safire's columns always have been taken seriously by both the Reagan and Bush administrations, and his harsh pronouncements on Mr. Bush in the Oct. 18 article ("No one ever says, 'Let Bush be Bush,' because nobody can be sure what that means") were no exception.

"We've had no formal or official reaction," said Jim Lake, a spokesman for the Bush/Quayle campaign. "I know a lot of individuals were probably pretty disappointed. But we also know that Bill has been a pretty solid guy over the years, notwithstanding what shortcomings he may perceive in the president.

"We can't imagine he would think Bill Clinton would be seriously considered by any conservative . . ."

Mr. Safire shrugged when told of Mr. Lake's comments. "You cannot worry too much about the consequences of what you do," he answered. "You maintain your ways, and call 'em as you see 'em. There is a certain responsibility about not making a late hit that cannot be answered, which is why we ran the piece two weeks before the election rather than the Sunday before."

Safire's serious side

This serious side of William Safire is not often seen in his playful "On Language" columns, but it is at the heart of "The First Dissident," an unlikely offering from a Washington political columnist. The first half of the book takes a critical look at the Book of Job, examining how interpretations of it have changed over the centuries -- from Job as the unquestioning servant of God to the epitome of moral defiance. The second half takes the lessons learned from Job as they can be applied to modern-day politics.

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