William Safire (1929-2009)
I'm not shedding tears at Bill Safire's passing.
And not because he actually took pride in penning "nattering nabobs of negativism" for then-veep Spiro Agnew, who first legitimized G.O.P. demonization of Jefferson's free press. (It was the only task with which the corrupt former Maryland governor could be trusted.) Or because, as AP reports, "Along with George Will and William F. Buckley Jr., Safire's smooth prose helped make conservatism respectable in the 1970s, paving the way for the Reagan Revolution."
Sorry, but a weakness for puns and alliteration does not smooth prose make.
No, as a footsoldier for reactionaries, it was Safire's use of his improbable NYT column for the concoction of untruths targeting good-hearted progressives that I won't miss him.
Safire himself legitimized vilification of the president, pursuing countless Clinton "scandals" that were sheer wind. "Like a pioneering blogger, Safire years ago started grabbing bits of information and wrapping them in the tightest partisan, what-if spin possible," Eric Boehlert wrote in the Web site Salon in 2004. "When the accusation unraveled, he'd simply ignore the thud of his charges hitting the floor."
And so did his editors at the supposedly liberal NYT - for 32 years.
An AP report adds: "From 2001 to 2003, Safire also published several columns pressing the case that Saddam Hussein was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, calling it an 'undisputed fact' that hijacker Mohamed Atta met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in April 2001. The 9/11 commission said that meeting never happened." (Tell it to Dick Cheney, who will go to his grave insisting it did.)
Safire, ne Safir, was not a pioneer in the fact-based blogging that will dominate that vocation, if it doesn't already. A trumped-up PR shill, Safire was in lifelong pursuit of respectability - escaping first his early calling in press agentry, then the criminality of the Nixon White House, jumping to his NYT perch in 1973, one of the first rats to desert the ship, a year before Nixon was forced from office.
Safire's claim to pioneering rests solely with helping drag punditry into the gutter, though he had the likes of H.L. Mencken and Westbrook Pegler as inspiration. Dating roughly from the 1980s, when movement conservatives grasped that maintaining a united front against a chronically divided Democratic Party was key to elevating the minority party to power and keeping it there, he (and Buckley and Will) turned punditry into partisan abetting of a reactionary agenda and its proponents. What he paved the way for was Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, who at least are easily recognizable as entertainers.
Safire, a University of Rochester dropout, fancied himself a journalist. But his admittedly superb language column and profilic output of well-received books - one of them a brave examination of the life of Job - failed in disguising a pen for hire and intellectual mountebank who cheerily took on the labours of water boy for some of the most retrograde public figures of his time.