Safire on Safire, Part II

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: William Safire
Title: “Safire on Safire” Part II
VTR: 10/18/87

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Last week, when I began my first program with today’s guest, I noted that I had so many questions to ask, points to clarify, ideas to explore with him, that I’ve asked him to sit still for two half hours. And here we are. I’ll probably wish for more, too. William Safire, after all, 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 many 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”, and his novels.

Now, for the first…for further insight into “Safire on Safire”, we can search through his newest work of fiction, Doubleday’s massive “Freedom: A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War”. Though, I didn’t want to make last week’s program, or this one, into some kind of exegesis of his newest novel. I recalled, then, that once before on THE OPEN MIND I had asked William Safire just why he had turned from being the great permitter in language and the great provocateur in politics, to writing fiction; and the program went on from there. Well, today I have somewhat different fish to fry.

I do appreciate your joining me again, Mr. Safire, staying with me, and I’d like to pick up with something that we were saying in between the two programs. I asked you about Lincoln; whether you felt that Lincoln had changed, had shifted, in the years from the beginning of his political career to his assassination.

SAFIRE: Right, well Lincoln came in rather arrogant, I think, in 1861, and irritated that the South did not recognize his presidency; and absolutely certain that a tough show of certitude by him would bring the South back or precipitate a war that would end before Christmas of 1861. He was wrong about that. And indeed, he was shaken in his own self-judgment, by the loss of Bull Run, and the inability of the North to put together a military campaign to crush the South. And so as the years went by, I take it into late 1862, he realized that he had to change the focus of the war. And then something changed, I think, in him. He was no longer fighting just for majority rule. He then turned to slavery, abolition. Now, he had not been an abolitionist. He had always been against slavery, but he had pledged not to strike at slavery where it already existed, in the South. For here, in extremist of the South, looking like it was winning the war. Lincoln said, “How can I punish the South? How can I discombobulate the Southern society?” I think the solution was to come up with this notion of abolition. Now, as he grew bolder in the job, he changed. He trusted fewer people. He didn’t have the long talks with Francis P. Blair that he had in the beginning. He drew inward, but he didn’t become more arrogant. He, I think, seemed to become more accepting of those tides of history, and he softened a little on the fringes, on the outside. But inside, he became less tough and more strong.

HEFFNER: Has Safire softened in any way?

SAFIRE: Ah, you’re getting me to compare myself with Abraham Lincoln, which I love to do, but…have I softened? On language, yes, I have. I love new words. You know I think “rip-off” is so much better than “theft”. I think referring to the secret plants that are working on our stealth technology as “the Skunk Works”…that’s wonderful. What a great thing, to steal an idea from the cartoonist Al Caplin, and make that the name of all secret plants. So I love the growth of the language. I don’t like grammar being lightly kicked around. But nothing you’ve said so far this program has offended me.

HEFFNER: And when we move away from language, I gather you’re saying, in politics, and political ideas, you’re not so amenable to change.

SAFIRE: I’m a right-winger, and I like to see change prove itself. I don’t like to just say, “Well alright, let’s try a different way”, it’s too easy to kick over the traces and pretend that you can start from scratch.

HEFFNER: Well, we can…I ask you the question about Lincoln’s changes…We know that he said in the summer of ’62, “When new views prove to be true views, I shall adopt them”. I wonder again now, very specifically, what “new views”, politically speaking, have proven to be “true views” as far as Safire is concerned.

SAFIRE: Well when Lincoln said that, he was conning people. He had already adopted the idea that he would go ahead and emancipate the slaves.

HEFFNER: But it’s a wonderful expression, and it remains the question that I would put to you.

SAFIRE: Right. And what the question is, is do I accept “new views” when they become “true views”?

HEFFNER: No , no, no, no. That’s too simple.


HEFFNER: I mean you have to say yes. No, I’m asking you; in the development of William Safire, we’re talking about “Safire on Safire”, as you look back, what important political views, if any, have proven to you to be truer than the ones you held before? What have you abandoned? How have you changed?

SAFIRE: I think on the subject of personal privacy I’ve become stricter and stricter.


SAFIRE: Well I guess the personal thing was when I discovered I was being wire tapped. That was kind of a shaker-upper for me. And I realized that my discussions with doctors and rabbis, anything like that, some little guy with earphones was listening in and writing them down and spreading the word around the FBI.

HEFFNER: You’re talking about doctors and rabbis. But suppose we were talking about sources of information about the government that could be interpreted as violations of national security? Is that such a strange thing, then?

SAFIRE: But now, thanks to the scandals that were exposed, I have to go to court and get a warrant, just as you have to get a warrant to search somebody’s house, you have to get a warrant to tap somebody’s line.

HEFFNER: Do you mean to tell me…

SAFIRE: That’s a safeguard, and I like it.

HEFFNER: Do you mean to tell me that in Washington today, because that’s where you do your business, good, bad, or indifferent, that you won’t find either wire tapping or the…not moral, but immoral equivalent of it? Are we now all set up so no one is snooping?

SAFIRE: I believe that the FBI wire tapping is all handled through a court that issues wire tap warrants. The CIA wire tapping is directed only at foreigners, not at American citizens. They deny it, or they refuse to talk about it, but I don’t think the CIA is tapping Americans. And I don’t think the FBI is tapping outside of the warrants, because both agencies are seeing what happens when you foolishly exceed those limits.

HEFFNER: You say “foolishly”…

SAFIRE: Because it’s not worth it. It’s never really worth it to bring the wrath of the American people down on the CIA for operating outside their charter. It’s not worth it. You lose too much in terms of budgets, and it cuts you back too far. So what we saw in the Iran Contra thing was that the CIA, and the bureaucrats at CIA saying to Bill Casey, “No you can’t do this without a presidential finding. The president’s got to sign off on this. We can’t do it on our own”. And it was that bureaucracy that infuriated Bill Casey, the DCI, Director of Central Intelligence. And then he went outside the CIA to set up his own little operation with Oliver North and John Poindexter to circumvent the law.

HEFFNER: But basically, I gather you’re saying we needn’t be as concerned today…

SAFIRE: Oh we’re having to be every bit as concerned in order to keep that straight. But as of now, I think it’s straight.

HEFFNER: And that we’re…you’re not going to find the kinds of incursions now that we found when your wire was being tapped.

SAFIRE: Right. And you asked about how that changes you. And so that feeling of being raped changed me. And now, when I see a Ted Kennedy sitting on the Judiciary Committee asking questions of respective justices about privacy, the right to privacy, I say to myself, ”There’s a bill sitting on his desk right now about wire taps, no excuse me about lie detectors. Why doesn’t he pass the bill? Why doesn’t he introduce the bill?” Well, he wants to make sure that Senator Hatch co-sponsors the bill. Baloney! Alright if he believes in privacy, the lie detector, the polygraph is an abomination. It attacks our basis of civil liberty. And the place to take the stand is right there in the Congress, not to pass the buck off to the Court.

HEFFNER: Are you satisfied that this administration is sufficiently concerned about privacy?

SAFIRE: They’ve expanded the use of lie detectors throughout the Justice Department and the Defense Department, hundreds of thousands of people now involved. Terrible! I think one of the worse legacies of the Reagan Administration, from a Conservative’s point of view, is the lack of concern for individual freedom, personal freedom and intrusions of privacy.

HEFFNER: Who’s co-opting whose claim to the title of “Conservative” here? You or the Reagan Administration?

SAFIRE: Well, I always thought a conservative point of view was to keep the government out of my life and the less intrusion the better.

HEFFNER: Do you think that has been a fair description of people who have…most people who have called themselves Conservatives in the past generation?

SAFIRE: Well, there are a couple of roots to Conservatism, like a molar. One is the Traditionalist, and the other is the Libertarian. And the Traditionalist says we have to pass laws and enforce them to keep society’s traditions. And that’s where you’re talking about school prayer, and anti-abortion laws, and like that, where you legislate morality. Then the Libertarian Conservative tradition, which is just as long and just as respected, says the essential element of Conservatism is to prevent government from dominating the lives of people. So the smaller the government the better, and the less intrusive the government the better. So it should keep out of peoples’ lives. And I’m a Libertarian Conservative.

HEFFNER: Now we know that politics does make strange bedfellows, but these are so strange. How fair is the first definition of Conservative, your prime definition of yourself as a Conservative?

SAFIRE: Well, the Traditionalist and Libertarian Conservative live together in this Conservative tent, and it gets a little tempestuous. But essentially, we agree on other great things, usually on more defense and usually on less radical change.

HEFFNER: But the contradiction seems to be such a strong one…


HEFFNER: …seems to be so profoundly philosophical…

SAFIRE: Welcome to the real world of intellectual combat and it’s a great thing. I think the ferment within the Conservative Movement is a lot more fun than the head-scratching going on among Liberals who look for Neo-Liberalism – or some who derive, it helps them to find themselves.

HEFFNER: You say “Welcome to the real world of politics”. Is this what you see continuing in American political life, or do you see something else happening in the future in terms of the organization and the orientation of our two great political parties?

SAFIRE: I think the pendulum, which started to swing, really, in the early 60s, or I guess the 50s, toward Conservatism under Eisenhower; and then through Nixon (a slight aberration because of Watergate); but we’ve seen 20-30 years of Conservatism. The natural forces would suggest, as Arthur Schlesinger has suggested, that there’s a time for a cycle, for a new compassion, or a new look at government taking a greater role. I’m waiting for it. We’re all waiting for it now. What are you guys going to come up with? And so far, it hasn’t been articulated in any of the campaigns. We’re listening. Maybe Mario Cuomo or Mike Dukakis or somebody will put together a task force and work something out that can then be the basis of at least five percent of the campaign.

HEFFNER: I’ve never known you in anything that I’ve read, that you’ve written, to be very much a prisoner of some larger historical idea such as Arthur Schlesinger’s notion of cycles. I see you as someone who’s more self-determined. Do you really adopt this notion?

SAFIRE: I was interested in Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, and in the back of the book he stops being a novelist and says, “Now, let’s talk about power”, and whether or not Napoleon was responsible for what went on in the world during that period; or whether Napoleon was just a guy who was there who was swept along by the forces of history. And he held that that was the truth; that the tides of history were such that one individual really could not determine. I’ve come out a different way. In “Freedom”, I say that Lincoln made the difference. That had there not been that one man, with that one central idea of majority rule and nobody gets out of here without fighting his way out, and no succession allowed; had there not been that tough-minded man, we would have had two countries. The South would have gone and taken Central America and Mexico; and the North would have gone up to Canada and taken Canada. And we’d have two countries on the North American continent. And who knows, maybe that would have been a good idea, but it would have been a lot different.

HEFFNER: I remember, I think I remember correctly, reading somewhere that Herman Wolf told you “never mind Tolstoy as an example, as a role model for your writing”. Here I wonder are you’re saying “never mind the cycles, one man can do it”.

SAFIRE: One man can bust cycles, yes, I think so.

HEFFNER: Do you think there’s one such man on the political scene now?

SAFIRE: Gee, if there were, I would have signed onto his campaign.

HEFFNER: Well maybe not, because presumably it will move us back in the direction that you’re not totally approving of.

SAFIRE: I would like to see some exciting intellectual thinker come in there with some challenging ideas. I don’t know if I’d climb on the bandwagon or try to put torpedoes in it, but at least it’s something to work with, some traction happening.

HEFFNER: Have you seen any shadows of such a person?

SAFIRE: Well, I’ve been reading speeches. Nobody else does. I’m an old speech writer. I like reading speeches, and I’ve told all the candidates’ press secretaries, please put me on your list for speeches, and I’ll read them. So some nights I’ll sit there and read Pete DuPont’s speeches, very good speeches. I read Mario Cuomo’s speeches on the Soviet Union, one he had a, now silly, little speech; then he came up with a terrific, interesting, provocative speech. So I commend that to you. You can’t find speeches printed in newspapers. Not even the Times, that prints more text than any other paper. I guess the way to do it is to ask handlers to send you the speeches, or else listen to them.

HEFFNER: Now you’ve told us how you make available to you what the shadows may emanate. What’s your conclusion thus far? Can you see anyone who looks, if not Lincolnesque…

SAFIRE: I like Jack Kemp on economic policy. Curiously…Everybody puts him down because he used to be a football quarterback and he’s got a…you know a good-looking hairdo and all that…but Kemp broth is with us today, I think, for good. He’s had a lot to do with the five years of prosperity; and tax cuts have, indeed, helped the economy contrary to what everybody was saying five years ago. And now, lo and behold…Everybody laughed when he sat down at the gold standard. And there’s the Secretary of the Treasury saying “Well, we’ve all decided to put gold in a basket of currencies and no longer have a free-floating thing, but peg the dollar to something specific.” Now, most people don’t address those subjects. They’re called MEGOs, M-E-G-O – “my eyes glaze over” – but he has, and Kemp, I think, is a factor to watch.

HEFFNER: I won’t press you more on that. I want to go on, now I know we don’t have much time left. It seems like such a darned shame, but every time I feel that I’m rolling here…

SAFIRE: You do have a zippy show.

HEFFNER: (Pause) Now, if that’s going to appear in our lexicon, ah…

SAFIRE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Ten years ago:

HEFFNER: You know I’m getting the signal that we have very little time left…

(HEFFNER: Nothing changes. Maybe a minute or so and I’ll know that in a moment.)

HEFFNER: I really just want to ask you what you see as the major problem confronting us in this adversary relationship between the press and the presidency.

HEFFNER: I’m not going to tell you what your answer was then; what is it now?

SAFIRE: Well now, it’s…you can’t let the real adversary relationship, which has to continue, develop into a “us against them” enemy. We’re not the enemies of the government. We’re the friends of the government, but the critics, and the … and what we’ve seen with President Reagan, I think, is unfortunate. He’s limited the press conference to one every quarter now and caused network correspondence to become a screaming banshee hollering at him as he passes, and that’s wrong. There ought to be an open mind session in the White House every week.

HEFFNER: Of course, this wasn’t done – this hasn’t been done for no reason at all. It’s been done in response to you and your colleagues. Not to you, not to Safire, what do you think it is a response to?

SAFIRE: I think the President didn’t want to do the homework necessary for a press conference every single month, or every three weeks. It’s a lot of work. But I find it a good way to run a government, because when a president has to do his homework on 80 questions, the whole government goes into a kind of convulsion, and “What do we tell the President to answer about the Persian Gulf?” Or this or that. And they come up with answers. It provides a deadline, and that helps to keep the President informed about what’s going on everywhere, and it also helps the people understand what policy is.

HEFFNER: Do you think he has been fairly treated by the press?

SAFIRE: I think he had a great long honeymoon, and I think, like Eisenhower, he did very well with his press relations.

HEFFNER: Who do you think…I mean, I know what it means technically, but doesn’t the President deserve, I mean, it was your friend, former friend Agnew, who felt that the President deserves more than he gets from the press in terms of being permitted to reach out to the American public, instead of being the object of constant attack.

SAFIRE: I thought the president should have the right to make a speech on national television and have it carried.

HEFFNER: Right. And immediately thereafter, you remember those old arguments that you would pursue…

SAFIRE: Instant analysis to knock it down? I don’t worry about that, to tell you the truth. I don’t like a network announcer saying “what he said was this, and it’s all baloney”. I do like the idea of an opposition spokesman coming on.

HEFFNER: Do you think that it’s possible that now in these last months of the Reagan Administration, the last year, or some many more months, that he will be increasingly pilloried by the press?

SAFIRE: No. I think we’re going to reach a peak of zapping Reagan, but then with the détente philosophy and with summits happening with Gorbachev, and with the fact that he’s leaving, I think the intensity of opposition will become reduced, and that we’re going to allow him to leave with dignity.

HEFFNER: You’ve been one of the zappers yourself. Any regrets about that?

SAFIRE: No, I like to hold presidents that I support to the standards they run on. And when they fall short of them I’ll bang my spoon against the high-chair.

HEFFNER: A long time ago you said “no more Teflon-man”, or you said something to the effect that from now on it will not be possible for a president to hide behind manipulations of opinion. Were you really right at the time?

SAFIRE: I think so, yes, but I’ve been wrong a few times, too, on calling shots on this president. I think I underestimated his economic policy. I allowed that, you know, Voodoo Economics was…Reaganomics was giving Voodoo a bad name. I was wrong about that. His economic policy turned out to be very good. Alright, we’ve got these huge deficits. But the country’s done pretty well in the Reagan years. I’m glad I spotted the brilliance of his Star Wars proposal which met with great derision at the time. I think that’s what’s brought the Russians to the table as nothing else has.

HEFFNER: You know, one question…we have one minute. I’ve got to ask you how you react to the Wall Street Journal’s continuing attack upon not the President, but the Congress of the United States? The beltway mentality developed by the 535 people who occupy those seats.

SAFIRE: I like to zap the Congress, too, but the most important thing is the balance of power between Congress and the President, and the press against them both. Not against them, but needling them and cleansing them.

HEFFNER: You said it…you said it.

SAFIRE: And that’s what makes the Republic free.

HEFFNER: But of course, I have to ask why you said “against” and then take it back. Don’t you really mean “against”?

SAFIRE: No, I took it back because it could be misinterpreted. I mean, jabbing into and cleansing. And you don’t have to be against somebody to focus their attention on what they’re doing that’s wrong.

HEFFNER: It’s a bang on the forehead that focuses their attention best of all.

SAFIRE: With a two-by-four.

HEFFNER: William Safire, thank you so much for joining me again today on THE OPEN MIND. I hope you’ll come back.

SAFIRE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next week. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. 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 production 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.

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