WHEN I was on Richard Nixon's staff in 1966, legend had it that William Safire had masterminded Nixon's so-called "kitchen debate" with Nikita Khrushchev and whether this was true or not, it was obvious that Richard Nixon valued his advice highly; I only know of one other person whom Nixon allowed to maintain a relationship with both himself and Nelson Rockefeller.
Sometime in 1967, I remember having a lengthy discussion with Safire which got down to the philosophical point of whether publicity was more important than content. In order to prove my point, I charged him with saying that it was desirable for a man to be the subject of a front-page, right-hand column story in The New York Times, even if the reason for his prominence was that he had murdered his wife. Without flinching, without stalling for time, Safire said, "Of course; now you wouldn't want to do that every day, however."
How can you argue with someone who refuses to be inconsistent? How do you cope with a man who won't admit he's wrong? What can you do with someone who is pragmatic and principled at the same time?
Safire decides who the good guys are first and then uses his considerable talents to demonstrate why they are good. He identifies the goals and then figures out the means. He tells you what he thinks is right and then he challenges you to disagree with him. It is very possible to disagree with Safire, as I have, but it is never possible to disregard him. The test of a good writer is whether he can make you think, and Safire certainly excells in that dimension.
Safire's Washington is a collection of his columns written over the last seven years. In it you will find defenses of Richard Nixon, John Connally, Daniel Schorr and Menachem Begin; devastating criticism of Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, William Paley and Edward Kennedy. An unreconstructed Cold Warrior, Safire counsels us to be wary of the Soviet Union, resolute in our defense capability and skeptical of detente. On the home front, he tells us that recessions have their good sides, the federal government is suspect and that Congress is a body to be pitied.
You may think that Safire sounds a little conservative; but if he is, he is definitely from the libertarian branch. He is nothing if not consistent in his defenses of individual rights whether the subject is gays, criminals, pornographers or adulterers. To Safire, conservatism is not tradition, it is freedom, and he is not afraid to defend this belief to the philosophical hilt.
There is also no hint in his writings that he would throw old ladies out in the snow in the interests of economy in government, no insensitivity to minority feelings, no wishful opining for the "good old days." You see, Safire has a conservative mind but the rest of him is something else.
There is one other important dimension of William Safire that deserves mention. He is one of the few writers I know of who has an honest love for words. The man who helped create such memorable phrases as "nattering nabobs of negativism," the "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history" in his speechwriting days also is responsible for getting Nixon to refrain from referring to "precipitous" withdrawals from Vietnam when he meant "precipitate," or abrupt, withdrawals. So well did Nixon learn the lesson that by the time Watergate arrived, he was able to refer correctly to his reluctance to take "precipitate" action.
In one of his essays, Safire speaks of his interest in words:
"By and large, however, word watchers introduce a note of good sense and good grace, of interested disinterest, to the action and passion of their times. The word for a thing is not the thing itself -- a pig is only a marking of letters on paper and not a flesh-and-blood animal, or a slang derogation and not a real police officer. The sense of dealing with a subject once removed from reality gives the lovers of language both their balance and their self-image of proud eccentricity, as they try to brush back a flood with a whisk broom."
With tongue in cheek Safire reminds us that "senile" and "Senator" come from the same root, and with obvious delight opines as to whether any real person has ever said: "Do me a sexual favor."
Once I became embroiled in a senseless argument when I suggested to a group of political scientists that the Founding Fathers had most appropriately decided to revolt first and then approved the Declaration of Independence. I was immediately besieged by horrified denunciations. Well, I still believe it happened that way. That's the uniquely American way of blending pragmatism with principle. If you are an American you feel something is right before you can prove it. I know that if Safire had been there, he would have not only led the fight for revolt, but insisted on writing the Declaration as well. King George would have been more directly identified as a villain, slavery would have taken its lumps and there would have been less reliance on God and more on what SOB's the British were.
Safire's Washington may get your dander up but that's why it is useful. It is well-written and well-reasoned. Read it; you will like it.