Flack, political operative, speechwriter, novelist, columnist, and hack.

Media criticism.
Sept. 28 2009 6:36 PM

William Safire (1929-2009)

Flack, political operative, speechwriter, novelist, columnist, and hack.

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The only other mentions of the word and technique I found were in previous Safire columns ("Finder's Keeper," Dec. 22, 1985, and "The French Connection," March 13, 2003) and his book Safire's Political Dictionary, where the cited source is a 1971 book by Arthur Krock, a former Times correspondent in Washington. (Safire mistakenly says the book was from 1975.) Krock was 83 when his book came out. He died in 1974.

In communication with me, Safire stuck to his story, refusing to abandon his faith in the existence of "keepers." In politics, unwavering commitment to discredited information like this is called stonewalling. In public relations, the technique is called spin. In speechwriting, it's called … speechwriting. Journalists call it what it is: hackery.


Safire refused to observe the usual journalistic standards because he never really thought of himself as a journalist. A human hybrid of flack, hack, speechwriter, book author, novelist, and politician, he answered to nobody but himself, and for all his alleged skill as a reporter, he never asked himself any tough questions.


Eric Alterman coaxes a little self-reflection out of Safire in Sound and the Fury: The Making of the Punditocrcy. In his columns, Safire loved to affix the -gate suffix made popular with Watergate to all scandals and controversies—Koreagate, Oilgate, Peanutgate, Angolagate, Lancegate, Billygate, Double Billingsgate—and in a interview with Alterman, he conceded that he had overdone it. Alterman writes: "Safire today admits that, psychologically, he may have been seeking to minimize the importance of the crimes committed by his former boss with this silliness." Send the URL of your favorite Safire column to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and dig my Twitter. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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