THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: William Safire
Title: “Safire on Safire”, Part I
Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now I have so many questions to ask, points to clarify, ideas to explore with today’s guest, that I’ve asked him – and he’s agreed – to sit still for two OPEN MIND programs… though if past performance is any guide, my plaintive cry, even as we finish the second, will be for “More, More”. William Safire is the brilliant, acerbic Washington essayist for The New York Times, was formerly a Richard Nixon assistant in the White House, and was, is and always will be quintessentially a man about words. His regular comments on language just may delight as Safire readers as his pungent political essays provoke, though the latter have won him a journalist’s Pulitzer Prize. Admirers of all persuasions have embraced his books on language, and Washington, and the fall – not Camus’ but Nixon’s – and his novels. Indeed, for further insight into Safire on Safire we now can search through his newest work of fiction, Doubleday’s massive Freedom – A Novel of Abraham Lincoln And The Civil War. Now I don’t want to make this program, or our second half –hour with Safire some kind of exegesis of his newest novel. And I remember all too well that when he came here the THE OPEN MIND a decade ago, just after Full Disclosure, his extraordinary first novel had been published, and I innocently enough asked why he has turned from being the greatest permitter in language and the great provocateur in politics, to writing fiction, his program-stopping answer was simply, “Why not?” – well the discussion did go up from there, but today I’ll take no chances and just begin by asking Safire whether in the decade since he first sat here as a novelist he’s changed much, on fact or fiction.
Safire: Well, yes, Dick, I think some of the sharp corners have been knocked off. And I relax a little bit more both in politics and in language. I’ve become, I think, more of right winger in politics and more of a permitter in language.
Heffner: And the novel gives you the opportunity to…
Safire: Do everything. I’ve been working on the Freedom for eight, nine years. Coffee breaks, late at night, whenever. And it’s a chance really to put everything I do, as a pundit, as a mind-reader, into one medium.
Heffner: But why, why a novel? It’s a wonderful novel.. It takes us through a crisis phase in a wonderfully important man’s life, but why a novel? Why not non-fiction?
Safire: Ah, with a novel, you’re not limited to the facts, you can get right at the truth. You can climb inside your character’s heads, which a good historian restrains himself from doing. And you can say, “This is why I’m doing it”. Now with Lincoln you have to be, as a historian, somewhat removed… you have to be careful. This is, after all, the greatest American, with the possible exception of Washington. But as a novelist you can drop that stultifying reverence and brush aside the myth, the Sandburg myth, and say, “Okay, he’s a politician. He’s devious, he’s sometimes cruel, he’s above all purposeful”. Lincoln had an idea, a central idea, which was… majority rule. And that if, after and election, the losers left to set up shop for themselves, then democracy would be an absurdity. Now, we look back now and say, “Of course”, but at the time it wasn’t a clear deal.
Heffner: You know one of the times when you were at this table, you’ve been here twice before, someone wrote me and was delighted at the appearance of a person who was so much involved in personal liberty, so much pushing the concept of individual liberty. I wondered though how you make that conform to this great interest of your in majoritarianism, and that’s what it is.
Safire: Well, I find it absolutely consistent to be in favor of majority rule and, at the same time to say there are individual rights that a government cannot penetrate. Even the majority cannot penetrate. That’s the marvelous balance of the Constitution.
Heffner: Of course, your friend, A. Lincoln, didn’t always see it that way, did he?
Safire: He made some big mistakes. But because he’s Lincoln we have a tendency to look now and say, “Well, it was Lincoln, he can get away with it”. In the Iran-Contra hearings, a fascinating thing came up when Poindexter sent a memo to his staff saying that President Reagan had been reading a piece by Professor Walter Burns about Lincoln and what he was able to do in suspending habeas corpus, in other words, putting in martial law, any lieutenant could arrest anybody and no court could stop him, suspending habeas corpus was one big thing. Second, blockading the Southern ports, which is an act of war. And third, raising an army. Now all these things are Congress’ job and under the excuse that Congress was not in session, he could have called Congress into emergency session immediately, but under that excuse Lincoln usurped the powers of Congress. Now that battle is going on today in the Persian Gulf. What is the power of the President… the war power of the President? But in that case, there was Reagan asking his National Security advisor, “Check out that Lincoln did and perhaps I can do it unilaterally what he did… in Nicaragua.
Heffner: But it’s so interesting to me that you said a moment ago, “Well he made… he, Lincoln… made some mistakes”. Are you suggesting that what President Reagan has been doing comes under that heading, “mistakes”?
Safire: Mistakes is a nice mild word for it. It could be in Lincoln’s case, excesses or even abuses. I remember in the Nixon White House, we all would say, “well, Lincoln was equally… or even worse, attacked for crushing dissent”, when we criticized the criticizers, when we zapped the nattering nabobs of negativism.
Heffner: Hey, Safire says it. It’s not now Agnew, it’s Safire who uses his own words.
Safire: That was a phrase that… yeah, I came up with. I was wrong about Agnew, he turned out to be a bigot and I’ve been wrong about a few things. But the last time I was wrong was when I thought I made a mistake. But the thing about Lincoln was his excesses and his bad precedents and his, indeed, rape of civil liberties in the North, were completely forgiven with his, what is called “martyrdom”. Not I suggest he was assassinated, he was not martyred. The memorial that we go and visit is not, as it is called, a temple, it’s a memorial. And we cannot look at Lincoln as some kind of Moses or Jesus. He was an American President. And when you get into his mind and when you research the way it really was back then, and the passionate fights that took place in his own Cabinet, then you realize this was a President with warts and all, and you don’t approach him with reverence, you approach him with interest and with some critical eye.
Heffner: But let me come back. I don’t mean to beat a dead President or a dead horse or whatever. BUT again you used the word “mistake”. Do you really feel that Lincoln was mistaken in the steps you enumerated, steps that did lead to the triumph, eventually, of the Union cause?
Safire: Definitely. I think many of the civil liberties abuses in Lincoln’s North were just that, abuses. And indeed…
Heffner: No, no. I know abuses, but do we have to mean… make abuses mean mistakes.
Safire: Do you think mistake is too mild a word?
Heffner: No, no, no. You can abuse a privilege, a right, a power, but you may not be mistaken. It may be that Lincoln in terms of what he achieved, pragmatically speaking…
Safire: Ah, the end justifies the means.
Heffner: What about that?
Safire: Ah, sometimes, I guess the ends do justify the means. But as soon as you accept that as a principle, then most often, the means become the end. And that’s a trap that we mustn’t get into. Even in Lincoln’s Supreme Court, after Lincoln died in 1866 and the bone was no longer in the throat and the war was over, the Supreme Court said, “That Marimen (???) decision, that was wrong and we’re reversing it.” And they tried to say, “In the future we don’t do things that way”.10:00
Heffner: Do you think if I make a quantum leap now, that Judge Bork where he has served as a Federal Judge, that he has been mistaken or that we have mis-read him, as we’re taping the program just before the Senate will vote on the nomination, would you say that Judge Bork, who has now seemingly moved back from some of his earlier positions, was mistaken before? Or is he now pragmatically suggesting that a switch in time will save nine? Only this time, save one to add to the others on the bench.
Safire: Well a switch in time saves nine was an expression used when Roosevelt was packing the the court and the court suddenly realized that the Supreme Court should follow the election returns and proceeded to change its political atmosphere.
Heffner: And it usually has, hasn’t it?
Safire: Often does, yes, it’s a political place, the court. But at the same time, when you asked about Judge Bork’s record on the court, on the Court of Appeals, the second highest court really, it’s been exemplary, it’s been a terrific record. He’s never been reversed and, indeed, his dissents are looked on as awfully good law. Now to suddenly say, “We can find in his record, as an academic or as a write, statements that wasn’t it a mistake”, that’s like saying… looking back at Lincoln and saying, he should never have come out for colonization, for deporting millions of blacks. That’s applying today’s standards to something that happened a generation ago. And it’s an easy shot, it certainly lent itself to Gregory Peck, Hollywood-produced TV commercials. But I don’t think it was any way to examine the credentials of a Justice.
Heffner: It’s interesting to me that you say “easy shot”. Now I know that, since I read Safire, “easy shot” has the other side been historically just as guilty, if that’s the world, of “easy shots”. Haven’t we all been guilty of “easy shots”? Any man who puns as frequently as you do, who makes use of language the way you do, creates “easy shots”. Is that unfair?
Safire: Usually when it comes to Supreme Court nominations, you are more careful or more respectful because you’re not dealing with a politician, you’re dealing with a Judge, usually. And you’re not usually appointing a Governor, the way they did with Earl Warren. So, the atmosphere of selecting a Judge, with the exception of Judge Haynsworth has always been fairly respectful. Now I think the Haynsworth affair was a disgrace and that Senator Birch Bayh got what he deserved, ultimately, by being defeated, for striking down a good Judge, who has served very well on the Court of Appeals since then. I think what we’re seeing now is a kind of feeling of guilt by a lot of the people who participated in the frenzy of the Bork opposition and realized maybe that’s not the best way to handle a judgeship because there’s going to be a Democratic President one of these days and he’ll appoint a liberal, and there’ll be hell to pay.
Heffner: A couple of questions. I was interested in the reference to Haynsworth. Was he the only nominee to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon?
Safire: No, following the Haynsworth rejection, Nixon came up with a real dodo, in G. Harrold Carswell.
Heffner: Now here, the opposition was just as bitter, I gather.
Safire: Yes, but it had to be, the guy was not a good judge.
Heffner: So the question of Presidential appointee, that isn’t as absolute. You want to make a judgment about the nature of the appointee.
Safire: When you get an outrageous appointment, then you should exhibit outrage.
Heffner: So, it’s all relative.
Safire: Well, there are some non-relatives involved. But, yes, there are gray areas, I think you can say that.
Heffner: A sort of situational ethics, when it comes to Supreme Court appointments.
Safire: Ah no, no. Hold on. Hold on… there’s a thing called principle. And I think the principle involved here is when you ask the Judiciary Committee and the Untied States Senate which is a… supposedly a great deliberative body, to deliberate and participate in the selection of the third branch, that it reflect American tradition. And tradition has generally been to allow the people, the voter, to affect the court, through the President… through the selection of the President.
Heffner: Now you’re careful to say, through the selection of the President. Because if I’m not mistaken, what we saw the people say, the very last national election, which was for the Congress, which was for the House…
Safire: No, it doesn’t matter. National election. That’s a series of thirty-three elections and local elections. But when a President or a candidate running for President says, “This is the kind of Judge I will appoint”, and the others disagree with him, you have a pretty clear issue, nationally, for people to decide on. And if they say, “Let’s get ourselves some liberal judges, who will translate the Constitution in a flexible way and create new penumbras and new rights… fine. Then the President is elected and he’ll appoint a Judge, if he’s not a jerk, if he’s not a nut, if he’s a classy legal scholar and he’s a liberal, I say, “Okay, the people have spoken. The President has appointed”. The Senate should then make sure the man is a qualified Judge or qualified to be a Judge and confirm him.
Heffner: You see I was interested in this question of majority rule again. We started there and I know from your writings that this why, of course, you of Lincoln your great hero, because he was, essentially, a person may have saved the Union, but he saved the Union in terms of majorities that we were concerned about. And yet, when it comes to the Supreme Court following the election returns and the President picking nominees for the Senate to approve or reject, what about the expression of majority will that is reflected in the Congress. You say that there is no such thing?
Safire: The Congress is split between an elitist, anti-democratic body, called the Senate and a representative Democratic body, called the House. Now I say anti-Democratic because you don’t have one man-one vote in the Senate. Nevada has two votes and the State of New York has two votes in the Senate. And that is an aristocratic thing set up by our Fathers to make sure that the passions of the moment and the passions of the majority are not necessarily sweeping through the Congress. So here we have this not democratic, not representative body that’s supposed to be above the passions of the moment who were, in the case, swept up by the passions of the moment. That’s a mistake.
Heffner: Do you suppose that if the nominees, the nominations went to the House, that this particular House of Representatives, at this particular time who have embraced the nomination of Bork?
Safire: Oh, just the opposite. They would have acted as a Democratic controlled House and rejected it.
Heffner: So that in both instances, this elitist institution we have now, that happens to be organized by the Democrats, thank to the last election…
Safire: Should have, in a much more sober-sided way acted in American tradition, which is look at the man’s qualifications as a Judge and not say, “Now, for the first time we are going to”, well, alright, not the first time, but the first time, one of three times out of maybe fifty or sixty times, we are going to say, “Hold on, we approved Rehnquist and we approved Scalia and we approve O’Connor, they were all…, but now with the possible switch to the fifth Judge being a Conservative, we’re going to introduce a new criterion and that is, ideology”. Mistake.
Heffner: You know the problem with what it is that I’ve read of you and the problem, to my own mind, obviously not for you or so many of your readers, is how to make this… how to set this next to this involvement with majoritarianism?
Safire: Well, that’s because there’s a balance in the Constitution. There’s, as Lincoln exemplified, the majority must rule in the Democracy. I mean you vote and the winners win and the losers lose.
Heffner: Do you think a defeat…
Heffner: for Bork…
Heffner: …would mean that?
Safire: Let me finish. But you also have a Bill of Rights. To restrain the government in its use of power against the people. And that restraint balances off majority rule. And that’s the greatness, the genius of the American Constitution. You can’t say it’s all majority rule and you’ can’t it’s all to defend minority rights.
Heffner: What is your bet, if the nomination were put to this majority that you embrace… what do you think the result would have been, or would be today in the country. The nomination of Judge Bork?
Safire: The majority that I embrace… the American people, generally.
Heffner: The American people, generally, yes.
Safire: I think he would be accepted.
Heffner: Then we have a pretty faulty system.
Safire: No. You know, it’s not perfect. In this case I think it’s backfired and hasn’t worked right.
Heffner: This morning’s New York Times, your piece about the Bork appointment and the way that some people were done in… not prevented from testifying, but the screws were tightened, tightened, tightened. Do you feel that this was a reflection, generally of what happened?
Safire: Yes, I think there was a frenzy. And in a frenzy, whether it’s the National Security Council or the Senate Judiciary Committee. When a lot of people, including a lot of young people, get whipped up with enthusiasm about “boy, we’re going to go out and we’re going to make our deal with the Iranians and send the money to the Nicaraguans” or “We’re going to stop this guy from being appointed and thereby keep the court form being swung over to the Conservative side”, when this frenzy begins to feed on itself, you’ll see abuses. And the one that came to my attention was the only Black law professor who was coming to testify before the Judiciary Committee, and you’ve got to remember that civil rights and Bork’s supposed, not proven, but supposed leaning against civil rights, particularly twenty or thirty years ago, this was a central element of so many decisions.
Safire: So here was the … a Black law professor who had been Dean of Law at Howard University, the most distinguished Black university in Washington, he was coming to testify on favor of the Bork nomination. What happened? We don’t know completely what happened. We do know that one member of the staff of the State Judiciary Committee, who works for Howard Metzenbaum spoke to him and she says, out of…
Safire: Compassion or love for him or friendship, professionally, warned him that he would be so rigorously examined that, according to what he told a friend, he would be humiliated before the Committee. I don’t know exactly what happened in that conversation, but the result was he turned around and went home. Now he went home and he said to his colleagues, “couldn’t take the that”. Now that is just wrong. Turn in around. If the vote were going the other way, if the vote were going to confirm Bork and an anti-Bork witness was supposed to come and testify against him and that anti-Bork witness was warned or threatened or intimidated, “If you do, it’s going to hurt your career, we’re going to really ask you the worst, tough questions you can imagine. We’re going to drag up controversies in your own past. You will be the issue” and he caves and he goes back home and doesn’t testify. The uproar would be fantastic.
Heffner: This must be then, this must mean… you say there was a storm brewing and there was a lot of excitement, a lot of hysteria, it must mean that politically speaking this appointment is quite a decisive one, or would be.
Safire: The thing that separates this from the Scalia and the Rehnquist hearings which zipped right through, as you know, is that this is the swing vote. The fifth judge and the criticism being made of him is, of course, directed at the other four who are already there. And I guess a great many liberals want to delay the appointment of a judge until a Democratic President is appointed or to drag a foot until President Reagan must put up somebody… a man of the center… who like Howard Baker or somebody, who would not come in to it in a clear-cut principled way.
Heffner: On the question of civil liberties. How would you contrast this appointment and that of Justice Scalia?
Safire: Well, where you stand depends on where you sit. On the one case I’ve read very closely, which has to do with libel against a … a libel suit against Evans and Novak, my colleagues in the calumny, it was a fascinating exercize in judicial debate. And Judge Scalia (???) held that the columnist should be convicted of libel. And Judge Bork said that robust debate under the First Amendment meant that they should not be convicted of libel. So he was on the press’ side in this one. And the way they did it, was they put footnotes under their opinions and then each one would argue with the other’s footnote.
Heffner: Do you think that makes… I’m getting the signal to cut and I’ll come back next time because you’ve promised to stay there, so we can do another program. And I want to ask further questions about that. But thank you for joining me today, William Safire.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share you thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, PO Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing productions of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.