William Safire's dubious legacy

The departing Times columnist says he's proudest of his reporting. Looking over decades of his false accusations and erroneous assertions, it's hard to see why.

Published November 22, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Most newspaper reporters would really rather be columnists, free to pontificate instead of chasing down quotes. So why does New York Times pundit William Safire want to be remembered as a reporter? And given his track record, is that such a good idea?

Following the Monday announcement of his pending retirement after more than three decades of writing his influential "Essay" column, Safire, in interview after interview, signaled what he hopes his legacy will be -- reporting. "It's perfectly okay to do a straight, thumb-sucking column, and some do that," he told the New York Daily News last week. "I personally prefer to get on the phone and work some sources." Boasting to the Boston Globe, he added, "I helped move along the idea of opinionated reporting."

Top Washington columnists have always done some reporting, sprinkling their work with inside nuggets from trusted sources and making predictions about how Beltway conflicts will play out, with the added advantage of having talked to the senior players involved. But Safire is different for two reasons. The first is that he calls so much attention to his reporting, relentlessly reminding readers that he's working the phones. The more significant difference, however, is that Safire consistently goes beyond informed speculation, making serious accusations that have all too often turned out to be baseless. From Bert Lance to the war in Iraq, Safire has been wrong more times than you can count, yet the instances in which he has acknowledged his errors in print can probably be calculated on two hands. (He's written well over 2,000 columns.)

Like a pioneering blogger, Safire years ago started grabbing bits of information and wrapping them in the tightest partisan, what-if spin possible. When the accusation unraveled, he'd simply ignore the thud of his charges hitting the floor. The only difference is he wasn't tapping away on a laptop in his pajamas, but writing for the most prestigious Op-Ed page in the country.

"If a pundit sticks his neck out, he ought to have it chopped off if he's consistently wrong," says John Dean, who worked alongside Safire in the Nixon White House -- Safire as a speechwriter (he coined the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" for Spiro Agnew), Dean as Nixon's house counsel.

Nonetheless, Safire is regarded as a newspaper giant of his generation. Among the Times' honored columnists, "he's right there in the pantheon of the immortals," says Susan Tifft, coauthor of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times." "He proved himself for two reasons. He breaks news from time to time and he's not predictable. In the age of partisan opinion, you had to read him because sometimes you agreed with him and sometimes he made you apoplectic."

Safire's unpredictability has mostly centered on his aggressive defense of civil liberties. The columnist, who was once bugged by the Nixon White House, parted company with most of his fellow right-wingers in criticizing the Bush administration's curtailing of civil liberties after 9/11. Safire also struck an independent note in arguing against media consolidation: He's attacked Bush-appointed FCC chairman Michael Powell for pushing it forward.

In large part because of his occasional unpredictability and his lively writing, Safire has won admiration from readers across the political spectrum. "I think Bill has been one of the best columnists in the last 20 to 30 years," says Haynes Johnson, former liberal columnist for the Washington Post. "He's a bright, challenging, stimulating columnist."

He is also respected by many readers for his entertaining and erudite weekly column about language, which runs in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and which Safire will continue to pen.

Yet for all of his talents, over the years Safire has clearly abused the column -- by presenting highly questionable propositions as if they were accepted facts, making baseless accusations against public figures (often with the insinuation of criminality), and wielding the column with alarming transparency as a blunt instrument to settle personal scores and prop up his allies, both here and abroad.

Safire explained his opinionated reporting approach this way in an Oct. 31, 2002, column: "A columnist should play a hunch now and then, taking readers beyond the published news, using logic and experience to figure out what may be happening now or to predict what will happen soon. Win some, lose some."

"I practice opinionated reporting too," says Gene Lyons, columnist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. "But I don't pretend to know things I don't know. It seems people on the Times Op-Ed page can make up their own facts."

Safire, through an assistant, declined to be interviewed for this article, and Editorial Page editor Gail Collins did not respond to queries.

The questions being raised about Safire now, albeit against the backdrop of widespread professional admiration, are not unlike the reservations expressed when he made his unlikely debut at the Times 31 years ago. After working as a combined P.R.-radio-newsman for the famed broadcaster, publicist and political strategist Tex McCrary, Safire went to work for the Nixon White House. He fortuitously departed in the spring of 1973, just before the Watergate scandal took down Nixon's presidency. (Safire's last day in the West Wing, Wednesday, March 21, was the same day that Dean famously huddled with Nixon, telling him, "We have a cancer close to the presidency, that's growing.")

At the time, the Times' publisher, Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, was looking for a conservative voice for the opinion page. Sulzberger's hiring of Safire infuriated editorial page editor John Oakes, who "made it his practice never to see or speak to [Safire] unless he had to," according to "The Trust."

Safire's column had an underwhelming debut. "Safire had begun inauspiciously, accusing Nixon's critics of being McCarthyites and calling on the President to burn the White House tapes," wrote Eric Alterman in "Sound and Fury: Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics." Informed after two years on the job by his Times bosses that the column was not working out, "Safire went back to his office, sat down at his desk, put his head in his hands, and wondered how the hell he was going to save his job. Then he looked up and, lo and behold, saw his salvation: the telephone." He'd go back to his newspaper roots.

"So I think at that point something happened in my development as a writer," Safire told a radio interviewer in 1977, the transcripts of which were dug up last year by Washingtonian magazine. "I stopped sucking my thumb and staring at the wall and started getting on the phone and getting out and talking to people and trying to find out why this was going on."

"Lance," wrote the Washingtonian, "was the new Safire's first victim."

In 1978 Safire won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of columns attacking President Jimmy Carter's White House budget director, Bert Lance, for allegedly commingling his own bank dealings with his work for the government. Safire's high-profile broadsides in the Times -- "Broken Lance," "Lance Cover-Up," "Lancegate" (Safire writes his own column headlines) -- were instrumental in forcing Lance's resignation. Lance's scalp signaled Safire's transformation from a Nixon hack into a big-league pundit, a player. But the Lance scandal itself, like so many of Safire's crusades over the years, was mostly smoke and mirrors.

"The fact is a lot of what he was saying turned out to be crap," recalls Hodding Carter, who served as State Department spokesman during the Carter administration. Even the ultraconservative American Spectator exonerated Lance, noting, "Eight federal agencies -- the FBI, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the SEC, the Federal Election Commission, the IRS, the FDIC, the Federal Reserve, and the U.S. Senate -- conducted investigations of Lance and found nothing."

In his 1992 book, Lance says when he finally confronted Safire in person, the columnist replied, "We didn't want you to become chairman of the Fed." (Lance also noted he and Safire subsequently became friends. "Safire's gentlemanliness has gone a long way," says Tifft.)

"That was the tenor of the times," notes Jody Powell, Carter's White House press secretary. "The Lance story was just a couple years after Watergate and I think, generally speaking, there was a inclination on the part of journalists to show they could be as tough on a Democratic president as they were on Nixon, without regard to the facts." (When Safire won the Pulitzer for his Lance takedown, Powell quipped, "And people think the dollar has been devalued.")

That newsroom trend peaked during the Clinton scandals of the '90s, when Safire was zero-for-eight years in chasing Clinton scandals. Looking back at the roughly 800 biweekly columns Safire penned during Clinton's years in office, it's hard to find a single one of the issues he returned to obsessively -- hush money, obstruction of justice, perjury charges -- where Safire was vindicated by the facts. But Safire paid no price at all for being wrong again and again. He simply fired blank ("At some point, apologists for the President will have to stop calling Whitewater 'a cover-up without a crime'"), after blank ("Say Clinton is taken down on a RICO count"), after blank ("The author of the [Lewinsky] talking points will most likely be found [and] is in real danger of going to jail"), only to be toasted by his colleagues inside the Beltway establishment for his persistence in squeezing the trigger.

Safire was especially harsh on Hillary Clinton, whom he infamously called a "congenital liar." (He later claimed he intended to say she was a "congenial liar.") "He did what a lot of people did, only with more certitude, which was run leaks from [independent prosecutor] Ken Starr's people saying that Hillary was about to be indicted momentarily. It turned out to be complete rubbish and he never acknowledged it," says Lyons, author of "Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater." "Safire acts like he doesn't have any responsibility to his readers. I think he's hurt a lot of people's perception of the Times. People saw what he was able to get away with, that you didn't have more moral responsibility writing for the New York Times than if you were writing for a small town newspaper. That you could just wing it and never pay a price in public esteem."

Over three decades, many of Safire's loose accusations, each with the potential to end careers inside and out of Washington, have missed their mark. In 1979, for example, Safire claimed in a column that a Korean influence-peddler met House Speaker Tip O'Neill, D-Mass., at the Seoul airport. But Rep. Charles E. Wiggins, R-Calif., who was on the Korea trip, insisted that wasn't so, that the Korean was nowhere in sight, and even told Safire that before the column was published. Safire's explanation to Newsweek at the time: "I was in error."

Newsweek also reported, "In an assault on the U.S. Parole Commission for mistreatment of John N. Mitchell, Safire quotes the chairman as saying Mitchell's sick leave should not count as part of his prison term because 'after all, part of his time had been served lollygagging in bed.' The chairman, Cecil C. McCall, never spoke to Safire." Safire blamed the fictitious quote on a "typographical error made during the Times strike."

In three 1982 columns, Safire all but signed off on the since-discredited theory that the KGB directed the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

In late 1985, coming to the defense of his close friend and McCarthyite Roy Cohn as he was being disbarred in New York for swindling clients, Safire unloaded on a court's decision to release records of the Cohn disciplinary proceedings, tagging them "a cancer of hate." The Safire column ("Buzzards of the Bar") was filled with so many transparent falsehoods and slanderous attacks, obviously fed from Cohn's camp, that the Times had to run a lengthy clarification letter from the lawyer in charge of New York's disciplinary hearings that was 200 words longer than Safire's original column. "It is apparent that before writing his column, Mr. Safire had not reviewed the record of the proceedings," noted the attorney, who was being kind.

Safire admitted to going easy and "pulling his punches" in a 1987 column about his old friend Bill Casey and the major role he played in Iran-Contra during the Reagan administration. (Safire ran Casey's unsuccessful congressional campaign in New York in 1966.) Back in 1981, when Casey was director of the CIA, Safire allegedly called up Casey and urged him to allow Israel to have access to restricted satellite imagery. Casey caved, but was rebuffed by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

Safire denied the charge he lobbied the CIA on Israel's behalf, but he's a fervent and unapologetic apologist for Israel, in particular for its right-wing Likud Party. "He's been substantially to the right of the mainstream of the American Jewish community," notes Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan. In a 1992 Playboy interview he revived a favorite dream of the Israeli right, the idea that Palestinians would somehow leave the West Bank and move to Jordan. "I consider myself pro-Palestinian," Safire said. "I'd like to see them have a state. I think the state they should have is Jordan, which is mainly Palestinian." Safire said that only King Hussein of Jordan stood in the way: "I think he's an obstacle to peace." Hussein was "an obstacle" because he had renounced all claim to the West Bank in 1988, leaving the so-called "Jordanian option" irredeemably dead -- although not in Safire's eyes or that of the Israeli right.

Safire's passionate commitment to Israel has led to some serious reporting gaffes. As Alterman notes in "Sound and Fury," when Israelis destroyed Iraq's nuclear plant in 1981, Safire quoted "Baghdad's official newspaper," which allegedly insisted the targeted reactor was to be used against "the Zionist enemy." In fact, the quote was manufactured by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. And in 1991 when a group of Israelis were murdered in Egypt, Safire wrote that the PLO "condoned last week's slaughter," when the Times itself had documented several instances that week of the PLO denouncing the attack.

More recently, Safire's column has doubled as an open forum for Israel's far-right Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. As the Israeli paper Haaretz noted this year, "Safire has an open phone line to Sharon and tends to interview him by giving him an open platform with virtually no interference."

"One of Safire's major accomplishments was to rehabilitate Sharon in the American political discourse after he was sent into the political wilderness," says Cole. Sharon was disgraced after Israel's Lebanese Christian Phalange allies methodically massacred hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including women and children, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, following Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon -- an invasion masterminded by Sharon. An Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for the slaughter and he was removed as defense minister.

Safire's devotion to Israel may be one reason he turned on the first President Bush, who earned the wrath of Safire, Israel and the powerful pro-Israel lobby by threatening to hold up $10 billion in loan guarantees if Israel did not stop building settlements in the occupied territories. During a 1991 press conference Bush the elder famously complained he was just "one little guy" battling the "powerful political forces" of the Jewish lobby in Washington, D.C.

Whatever his reasons, Safire all but declared war on Bush in 1992, hyping the now-forgotten "Iraqgate" -- "the first global political scandal," as he breathlessly proclaimed it. Safire, along with ABC News' "Nightline" and other journalists, charged that the Bush administration had secretly and illegally plotted to arm Iraq and then orchestrated a coverup. Safire dubbed it "an election year Watergate," insisting, "Never before in the history of the Republic, in my opinion, has the nation's chief law enforcement officer been in such flagrant and sustained violation of the law." In a column titled "Is the Fix In?" Safire charged that President Clinton and Al Gore -- who had made much of the Iraqgate charges during the campaign but stopped raising them after assuming office -- had been paid off to shut up. "George Bush privately assured Bill Clinton that he would not criticize the new President during the first year of his term. ... Mr. Bush has kept his word," Safire wrote. "In what may be an unspoken quid pro quo, the Clinton Administration has moved to quash any revelations about Bush's Iraqgate scandal. ... No wonder we hear not a peep of criticism about Clinton from Bush; the former President and his men are being well-protected by Clinton's appointees in Justice."

Iraqgate vanished when a Clinton administration investigation found no evidence that the elder Bush had armed Saddam Hussein. (Of course, if you believe Safire was right and the fix was in, this doesn't prove anything.) Writing in the American Lawyer two years later, Stuart Taylor methodically outlined how Safire's reckless charges were completely bogus: "False. All of it." (The Pulitzer Prize committee saved itself a repeat of the Lance embarrassment by not awarding Safire a prize for Iraqgate, even though there was industry speculation in 1992 that he might win.)

Iraqgate simply served as a precursor to the box-full of Clinton scandals (Travelgate, Whitewater, Filegate, Gore's fundraising, China spies, Wen Ho Lee, etc.) that Safire kept unpacking and unpacking and unpacking. Here are just a handful of his more memorable, breathless and false entrees:

  • "If by the first week in October Attorney General Janet Reno does not seek appointment of Independent Counsel, she may well be the first Cabinet member since William Belknap in 1876 to be impeached."
  • "What did Vince or Web or Bill or I bill Whitewater or McDougal? Were those records shredded? God, I hope so." (Safire, writing the column in the voice of Hillary Clinton.)
  • "During President Clinton's watch, America's most vital nuclear secrets -- guarded intensely for five decades -- have been allowed to spill out all over the world."

    Last week Safire told the Washington Post he wanted to retire while he's "still hitting the long ball." But even some admirers suggest Safire this year has been unusually partisan and predictable, rolling over for the Bush White House. "During the campaign it seemed he became Bill Safire the old speechwriter," notes Haynes Johnson. Specifically, he says Safire has looked the other way in regard to Iraq. "There's a great deal of concern among conservatives over the premise of the war and the impact and its legacy. I would've liked to see Bill challenge Bush more."

    But to do so would have meant Safire would have to admit his own gross miscalculations about the war, from the buildup to the reconstruction supposedly now underway. Writing about Saddam Hussein's stockpile of WMD in late 2002 and early 2003, "Safire, as usual, was absolutely confident and absolutely wrong," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "His unique kind of reporting was to make things up. And Safire never acknowledged his mistakes. He just shifted gears like the lunatics on right wing radio: 'Did we say weapons of mass destruction? Oh, we meant Saddam's mass graves.'"

    "He was a ringleader among all the columnists and pundits who helped lead us into the war," adds Michael Massing, author of "Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq."

    In November 2001, Safire, leaning heavily on the flimsy evidence of a purported meeting between 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, wrote about the "undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks." "Intrepid journalists," Safire predicted, "will ultimately bring the full story of the Saddam-bin Laden connection to light."

    They did, at the New York Times -- whose reporting debunked the alleged terror summit: "Prague Discounts an Iraqi Meeting." Asked about the discrepancy, Safire told the Washingtonian magazine last year, "If I say undisputed, that's not right. It is disputed." But he added, "I don't feel the need to correct the record until the facts become clear."

    In the year since that answer, the consensus view of journalists and the intelligence community is that the meeting never took place. Yet Safire has never corrected his column about the "undisputed fact." That, despite the fact that the Times this year instituted a new, supposedly get-tough policy for columnists, insisting, "If one of them makes an error, he or she is expected to promptly correct it in the column."

    In that sense, Safire's retirement is well timed.

  • By Eric Boehlert

    Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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