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.

William Safire. Click image to expand.
William Safire 

Jonathan Alter pierced William Safire's veil in a Jan. 31, 1994, Newsweek piece about the pissing match between the New York Times columnist and Bobby Ray Inman. Safire had just helped destroy Inman's nomination as President Bill Clinton's defense secretary, and Alter surveyed the wreckage for evidence of how the columnist did his work, writing:

The issue is whether his exquisite writing gifts sometimes camouflage the skimpiness of the reported goods beneath. By skillfully blurring fact and opinion, he can appear to be breaking stories when he's really just breaking new and influential innuendo.

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Setting aside for a moment the idea that former Nixon speechwriter Safire possessed writing gifts that were "exquisite," Alter captures in these two sentences the methodology behind the columnist's three-decade performance on the Times op-ed page. Yo-yoing between fact and opinion, Safire would assume the guise of Johnny Deadline breaking a big story one moment and then, when it suited his purposes, don the Walter Lippmann beard to cogitate on matters of state like a supporting character in the The Wise Men.

When his scooplets panned out, as they did during the Carter administration, winning him a Pulitzer Prize, Safire the reporter would take a bow. When they didn't—see his contributions on Whitewater, the Vince Foster suicide, Wen Ho Lee, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, the Mohamed Atta connection to Iraqi intelligence, and Iraqgate—Safire the opinionator would either say the jury was still out or just move on without correcting the record.

In an August 2003 Washingtonianprofile by Harry Jaffe, Safire filibustered the case against correcting his Iraq and Bin Laden views by saying, "I don't feel the need to correct the record until the facts become clear." In an Aug. 21, 1995, New Yorker"Talk of the Town" piece, David Remnick chided Safire for having led Times readers astray with a 1987 column asking rhetorically if the Gorbachev-led Soviets weren't still out "to dominate the world." (For more on Safirean overreach, see Eric Boehlert's 2004 piece in Salon.)

One of the most damning critiques of Safire appeared in the April 10, 2002, Boston Globe,in which reporter Mark Jurkowitz accused Safire of serving as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "press secretary." Safire, Jurkowitz wrote, is "clearly serving as an unabashed propaganda for the hard-line Israeli leader. The more intriguing question is whether he's also presenting a sanitized—and more palatable—version of Sharon to the American public."

Most Safire assessments credited the columnist for his shoe-leather reporting skills, but Alter offered this disturbing dissent: "Safire's secret is his energetic reporting, but some big players in Whitewater say he has never called them." As newsroom hacks love to say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

I witnessed Safire hackery in action on Nov. 1, 2004, when I read his column that claimed journalists had a special name for a story that they deliberately withheld from publication until "the moment when it causes the most damage—which the victim cannot refute until after Election Day, by which time it's too late."

"Journalists call that hyping device a 'keeper,' " continued Safire.

I had never heard of a "keeper" before encountering the Safire column. I was prepared to believe that some journalist somewhere had pulled the stunt, but in polling a slew of journalists, young and old, I failed to locate anyone else who had heard of a "keeper"—the word or the device.

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.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type Safire in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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