Hating Hillary

By Andrew Ross

Published January 13, 1996 11:43AM (EST)

Con-gen-i-tal, adj.Belonging or pertaining to an individual from birth; resulting from one's heredity or prenatal development; as a congenitaldisease, a congenitaldeformity. (Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Ed.).

If you read William Safire's "On Language" column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, you know this is a man who believes in choosing his words carefully. Woe betide anyone who uses a word or phrase with other than strictest linguistic accuracy. So, how to account for the following in Safire's Jan. 8 op-ed "Essay":

"Americans of all political persuasions are coming to the sad realization that our First Lady -- a woman of undoubted talents who was a role model for many in her generation -- is a congenitalliar."

Could the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist have meant congenial? "1. Having the same tastes, habits or temperament; sympathetic. 2. Suited to one's needs; agreeable. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language).

That would seem to fit the usually sunny, outgoing Hillary Rodham Clinton, who reportedly charms everyone she meets. "Congenial" is listed immediately above "congenital" in most dictionaries, so maybe this was a case of simple human error. We awaited a "correction" or even a "clarification" from West 43d Street in the ensuing days. Alas, there was none, and we are forced to conclude that Safire meant what he said.

And what he seems to be saying that the tendency to lie is imprinted in Hillary Clinton's bones. If Safire meant "congenital" in the heredity sense -- that lying runs in the Rodham family -- that's quite a smear, even libelous perhaps, against Hillary Clinton's living blood relatives. But then Safire, former speech writer to that most accomplished and proven of liars, Richard M. Nixon, learned from a master. And, of course, should the Rodham family seek legal redress, he would be the first to scream "First Amendment!"

More likely, Safire probably meant it in the sense of a birth defect, like a cleft palate. What he meant to say was that Hillary lied from the moment she opened her mouth. Maybe she lied before then -- you know these girls and their lying eyes. She lied in kindergarten, lied in high school, lied at the dinner table, lied on her law school application. Every day of her lying life, she lies. It's congenital.

In Hillary's case, however, it is a defect to be scorned rather than pitied. And Safire's attack seems motivated less by the veracity -- or lack thereof -- of Hillary's versions of Travelgate, Whitewater, the Vincent Foster affair and her commodity trades, than by the kind of visceral hatred leveled at Hillary and Bill Clinton from the moment they entered the White House. Rhetoric like Safire's is inflammatory and poisonous, and it creates a climate in which the less silver-tongued feel free to act more directly.

Surely Safire considers himself above the likes of Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy and the other maniacs of the airwaves. But he, more than most, should know that words have consequences.

--Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton The New York Times