William Safire on the Book of Job in Today's Politics, Part I

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: William Safire
Title: “William Safire on the Book of Job in Today’s Politics”
VTR: 10/9/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, where only very rarely – indeed too rarely, as far as those of our viewers who want me to draw blood are concerned – only occasionally do I play at what Ross Perot has called “Gotcha journalism”. But when I do, or at least try to, it’s usually in the guise of – oh so innocently of course – asking a guest about this or her most fervently stated point of debate. “But where is it written?”

Well, I can’t use that device today – at least not very effectively. For my guest almost always does know where it is written, what “it” may be. And surely that’s true today, as journalist, historian, polemicist, expert on people, words and politics, New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist William Safire joins me to discuss his intriguing new Random House volume: “The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics”.

Now you know, I tend to make lots of notes when I read seriously, and early on with Mr. Safire’s “The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics” I scribbled to myself, “trouble with this book is that you have to read it to understand it…despite the clarity of its title”. Indeed, even after reading it through, I need my guest’s further help…sort of as a pony I can trust: Safire on Safire. I refer to his conclusion, on page 225: Mr. Safire writes, “I started my journey into this book with doubt in my faith, and have come out with faith in my doubt”. Then he writes, parenthetically, of course, “that’s one of those turnaround sentences, an old speech writer’s trick to pull profundity out of a hat, but in this case, it has the added advantage of compressing a mawkish personal chapter into a line”. So, Bill Safire, I, I want to ask about that mawkish chapter.

Safire: The full mawkish chapter?

Heffner: Absolutely.

Safire: (Laughter) No. The great thing about the Book of Job is that it’s not what most people have come to think. It’s, it’s a rebel’s book. And most people think of Job in the line, “the patience of Job”. Well, Job was not a patient man. What happened to Job…shall I tell the story of Job…?

Heffner: Please.

Safire: …and quickly…so then we can go from there…god was looking down on Earth and observing the perfect man…pious, upright, lived a good life, powerful man, major chieftain. And he says to the Satan, “observe my servant Job…how terrific he is, good”. And the Satan says, “Well no wonder…he’s rich and powerful and happy. No wonder he’s pious. Does Job fear God for naught? Is he doing this for nothing? He’s, he’s getting something from it”. And God, in order to prove that the worship of man was not for material things, said, “Okay, you test him”. And then that portion of Job ends. And the poetry begins where Job is tested, and he’s afflicted. Out of the clear blue sky with these terrible misfortunes…all his children are killed, his, his property is taken away, and he’s afflicted with terrible boils and he’s sitting there on a dung heap, then contrary to the popular belief, he doesn’t just sit there piously and say, well, this is the way the world is, and I’ll, I’ll stay resigned. On the contrary, he says, “damn the day that I was born”, and he’s furious.

Heffner: Real blasphemy.

Safire: Absolutely. Irreverent to the point of, of, of blasphemy. Because when he says, “damn the day that I was born, let there be darkness”, that’s his way of saying in Genesis where they said “Let there be light”, he was challenging God’s justice. And essentially he said, “God is mismanaging the morality of the world” because, as the reader knows, he’s a good man…he didn’t do anything wrong, and he’s being treated unjustly. And so, instead of just taking it on the chin, he challenges God and essentially says, “I’m being treated unjustly, there’s no reason for this”. And his friends come and sit there to commiserate with him, and they say, “Look, you must have sinned because you wouldn’t be suffering otherwise”. And he said, “No, I haven’t sinned. And I’m suffering for no reason”. Now, what was the poet who was writing this getting at? I think he was getting at reality. Here in the first five books of the Bible, Deuteronomy particularly, you learn about retribution. You do good and God will take care of you, and you do bad and you’ll be punished. But that’s not the way the world always works. I mean the good die young, the wicked prosper…there’s something wrong. And there must have been a crisis in the faith back 500 years B.C. because people were beginning to say, “Hey, this isn’t the way the world really is”. So the poet who wrote Job, came up with this idea that the real world…there wasn’t morality enforced by God, and that it was for us to work it out. And we couldn’t lean on God and expect him to give us perfect order. Now this was kind of blasphemous. And I think that the end of the Book of Job, in order to get it into the Bible, to get into the canon, he had to tack on a Hollywood ending. He had to say, “Okay, at the end God lectures Job and Job submits and then he gives him back his family, his money, everything”. Which does not really make the point of the book. The point of the book is that it’s okay to object to misjustice, and it’s okay to assert yourself against even the highest authority if the highest authority is wrong.

Heffner: Now, wait a minute. Why is it okay if it…if you don’t refer back to the fact that ultimately job ends up with his camels, with another family, back in the position of prosperity? What’s the definition of okay, when Safire says “it’s okay”? What do you mean/ where do you derive this from except your own enthusiasm for being a dissident?

Safire: There is that enthusiasm.

Heffner: Yes.

Safire: And I don‘t pretend to be a biblical scholar. I just know this one book pretty well. But, in all the reading about Job, and it is probably…well, it’s certainly one of the most written about books of the Bible because it bothers so many theologians. And all my reading about it, most scholars think that there was a book of poetry inserted between two…an old legend…that there had originally been an old legend about a Job who was not Jewish, who lived in what is now Iraq, and the story that we remember, “The patience of Job”, was that fairy tale. And that the, the poet who was writing this somewhat iconoclastic realistic book took that legend, split it apart and put his story in the middle. So that he was not…he used that as a cover, really, for his rebelliousness and for his kind of irreverent point of view.

Heffner: You don’t embrace the notion of “the patience of Job”?

Safire: Just the opposite. I think that was a cover up.

Heffner: No, no, I don’t mean in terms of exegesis…I don’t mean in terms of a scholarship, I mean in terms of personality, I mean in terms of the here and now. As something that, an idea that you have embraced for your own personal reasons. I don’t think you write this book of Job…i…you say so, you don’t write about Job as an exercise in Biblical scholarship….

Safire: Yes.

Heffner: …but what, what informs your tremendous interest in this interpretation of Job?

Safire: Well, it, it’s something that goes back to when I was a kid, back at Syracuse University, where I was a drop-out. And I read “Moby Dick” and I noticed in “Moby Dick” Captain Ahab challenging God, and he was kind of the…well, he wasn’t the hero, he was the protagonist of that book. And throughout the history of literature, you have these characters who stand up and fight authority. And in my world, in politics, you have these characters, whether they’re Gandhi or Vaclav Havel recently, or Sharansky, or any of the “refuseniks” who stood up to authority and asserted their conscience against the whole world. That is not only courage, I think it’s what…the best thing in the human condition. And I kind of like that, and “Jobans” are usually attacked as nuts, as Ahab was a monomaniac. And they shake up the status quo, and they assault the, the comfortable authority, and they’re alone.

Heffner: So this is the key to Finnegan’s Wake? This is the key to understanding Safire’s columns in the New York Times?

Safire: I broke my head over Finnegan’s Wake, and I’m sorry I, I never got it. But, and there may be a big of Joban philosophy in it. That’s for you to work on. But…what was your question?

Heffner: whether this isn’t’ the key to Safire? When you read Safire’s column…

Safire: Yes.

Heffner: …you have a key to it, and that is your interpretation of the Book of Job, which as you point out, isn’t everyone’s interpretation.

Safire: Right. I, I don’t identify myself as a…an establishment pundit. I’m a part of the establishment, let’s face it. I work in Washington and I rub elbows with all the powers that be, and occasionally “zap” them, and occasionally use them as a source…I, I know how to work in politics. But once in a while, I let some moral outrage show.

Heffner: Wait a minute, what do you mean “moral outrage”? you’re…I better to say, what do you mean by “once in a while” because we spoke here 15 years ago at this table, and I remember then saying, in terms of what you had written about Watergate, in terms of your novel, in terms of your history, that moral outrage is, of course, the, the centerpiece in what Safire does. No?

Safire: Well, you were right, you pointed out the fact that I worked for Nixon, and i…you forgot to add that I wrote speeches for Agnew, “The Nattering Nabobs of Negativism”.

Heffner: You try…you know I looked back at our transcript of that first program together in 1977, and you kept pushing me away when I talked about what you had done with Agnew. You, you indicated that “ah, that was Pat Buchanan”…until we got to the “Nattering (or Nattering) nabobs”, and then, of course, you had to hold on to it. Authority…

Safire: No, no, let me…but…

Heffner: Alright, go ahead…you want to…

Safire: …let me answer the question you asked.

Heffner: Go ahead.

Safire: So here am I, coming out of this practical and not necessarily highly moral world, but it takes one to know one…I lived through it, I can tell the clank of falsity in a government statement, because I used to write them. And that was that part of my life, I didn’t get tainted because I wasn’t particularly trusted…

Heffner: In the White House?

Safire: Yeah. And they tapped my phone, and all…I found out later. But you come out of an experience like that, and you begin saying “What was the essential lesson of Watergate?”. It was the abuse of power, and we mustn’t let any center of power dominate our lives. And particularly not the White House. So, here I am a member of the media establishment…not reveling in the power of the establishment, but trying to use the power that I have in it as a countervailing force to the power of government. Government operates largely secretly. Which is wrong. The amount of secrecy in government is totally unnecessary. There are some national secrets like how to build a hydrogen bomb we ought to keep, but most of the other secrets are embarrassments. And it’s my job, and the job of the press to create a tension that will strike a balance, and, and unfold more. Now when the head of the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice picks up the phone to call somebody…he sends a chill across that line into whoever he speaks to because he can indict you. And the wonderful thing about our system is when he picks up the phone and I’m calling or somebody like me, he feels the child. And there should be somebody, some countervailing force reminding people in power that their power is not all powerful.

Heffner: Now, wait a minute…you’re in power…

Safire: Right.

Heffner: …you have an enormous amount of power. As you say, when you call the Attorney General, or the Assistant Attorney General, there’s some quaking there, too, cause they don’t know what’s going to appear in Safire’s column…

Safire: Right.

Heffner: …what’s the countervailing power, authority…where does dissidence enter the picture in terms of the power of the press?

Safire: Fortunately the press has a lot of internal critics. I mean we’re sniping at each other all the time. I got a call from some news magazine this morning saying “We’re doing something on the liberal bias in the media. Do you think there is one?”.

Heffner: What was your answer by the way?

Safire: I haven’t returned the call. Because I had to come here and I got caught in traffic. But, what would my answer be?

Heffner: Please.

Safire: Gee, if there’s a liberal bias in the media, why has there been, for the last generation a Conservative domination of the White House?

Heffner: You think that’s a very good answer?

Safire: That’s a good, quick answer. Yeah. What do you want a long…

Heffner: A, a slower, slower more thoughtful one.

Safire: Ummm, most literate people tend to be more liberal. I should have used that in the past tense, “tended to be”. Then in the late 70s, or early 80s, there was a wonderful conservative ferment…intellectual ferment…saying that “we’re going to have to come up with something new…a new approach to government”. And, all the think tanks, and you could read all the stuff in all these little magazines…excitement…this was before Reagan really came in. and that, that has percolated through, and so no there is not a pervasive Liberal domination of the media. Most reporters are Democrats, most publishers are Republicans.

Heffner: Just as in the old days.

Safire: Yeah. Bu the, the bubbling, the intellectual excitement in the Conservative Movement has cooled. And…

Heffner: In the Conservative Movement?

Safire: Yeah, yeah. And, and I haven’t seen it been replaced by Neo-Liberal thinking. They’re not…I, I think most Liberals now want to get back in.

Heffner: How do you account for that cooling of the bubble?

Safire: Could be time…

Heffner: The Conservative bubble.

Safire: …yeah, it could be time…it could be power. If you’re in for 10 or 15 years, you begin to lose your zing, and then you begin to think about how important being “in” is, and you also learn how tough it is to try to cope with some of these huge problems. Bu, the, the sense of excitement and certainty that we could fix things that we had in the late 70s, and early 80s has gone. And now we’re looking…now that the cement of the glue of anti-Communism is taken away from the Conservative Movement, we have to find ourselves again.

Heffner: When you went to the New York Times in the 70s, when you went from the White House essentially to the, to the Times you were going to be the House Conservative. Fair?

Safire: Yes.

Heffner: Okay. How could you fairly characterize yourself now?

Safire: Well I’m a…I’m a Libertarian Conservative, and always was. A Libertarian Conservative believes that the government should get out of people’s personal lives, and people’s economics and not re-distribute income and not spy on people, and not dominate them…domestically. And, in terms of foreign affairs, should carry the spirit of freedom and the principle of human rights that we’ve developed so well here, around the world. And that’s Libertarian Conservatism. It’s a minority of the Conservative Movement, which is mainly traditional Conservatism, which suggests that morality is something that government has a part in to undergird the public morale. Now we saw that in the Houston Convention, the difference of opinion…the party was dominated by, I think, extreme elements that insisted that morality should be legislated.

Heffner: When you say “the party was dominated”…you don’t mean it in the past tense, do you? Or, you’re not referring to the party that took place in Houston, you’re referring to the Republican Party, I gather.

Safire: Ah, I don’t think that…in fact I’m certain that a rigidly moralistic view is held by the majority of Republicans. I think the majority of Republicans are reasonable Right, rather than self-righteous Right. Or Far Right. The Religious Right has a right to its view, has a right to assert its view, and quite frankly whipped the tails of the rest of the Party in primaries and in, in getting active and electing delegates and, and taking over that Convention. That’s politics. They played it fair. And I think the rest of the party’s got to wake up to the fact that in the Convention of 1996 we’re going to have to put together a, a platform and a party that would appeal to the whole country.

Heffner: “We” are going to have to put together…

Safire: I’m a Republican.

Heffner: You intend to stay where you are?

Safire: As a Republican?

Heffner: Yes.

Safire: Yeah, I’m happy in the Republican Party.

Heffner: But when I read the Times, and I read Safire in the Times, I don’t have the feeling that Safire is happy with his Party or at least his Presidency.

Safire: Oh, quite the contrary. I felt that Iraq-gate was a scandal three years ago…

Heffner: Yeah.

Safire: And I saw those same characteristics of Watergate that I ignored then, 20 years ago…well, I can’t ignore now, which is abuse of power and then cover-up and trying to keep it away from being exposed. And so I inveighed against it. And the fact that they’re Republicans that doesn’t enter my mind. I’m a good Republican, and I think a good Conservative, and I think we have to purify our own.

Heffner: How serious are you…I know you’re always serious, but…

Safire: I kid around a little bit…

Heffner: Okay. Were you kidding around a little just the other day in your column on Bush on Iraq-gate…at the very end, “The Iraq-gate cover-up is unraveling. In trying to conceal a blunder, real crimes have been committed”. Now that means Watergate, and that means investigations…

Safire: Right.

Heffner: …and that means indictments.

Safire: Right. That’s…I think that has been a, an obstruction of justice, and I think there should be a special prosecutor appointed as Congress has requested, and, for the first time since the special prosecutor’s law went into effect, the Department of Justice, the Attorney General said, “No”. Because he does not want an outsider coming in and investigating what I charge are potential obstructions of justice…law-breaking. Now I may be right, I may be wrong. But I think there should be a special prosecutor and I think if there is one, we’ll see some indictments.

Heffner: When you appeared on “Meet the Press” just the other day…I mean we usually do these programs in a way they can be seen forever, and yours, of course…

Safire: Good…good…

Heffner: …will be…but this one will be seen soon after we do it. You seem to be indicating that this question of Iraq-gate, as you call it, may come to plague the next Administration, if the next Administration…as Watergate did the Nixon Administration…Nixon won, won big…and then was out of office.

Safire: Right. I think this…should Bush win…I think this will be the albatross around his neck.

Heffner: Albatross was the word you used on “Meet the Press” and I wondered whether…

Safire: Yeah, you get a good metaphor, you stick with it.

Heffner: (Laughter) …I wondered whether it meant to you that this country can’t afford to be “albatrossed” if I may. I mayn’t, I know, but…

Safire: Well, that’s alright you can use a noun for a verb.

Heffner: What do you think? That we can’t afford that?

Safire: Of course, we can afford it, we’re a strong country. And when power is abused, the people rise up and say, “You can’t do that”.

Heffner: I didn’t mean, “can we afford it…will we survive” I mean “can we afford it the way Watergate damaged us”?

Safire: I don’t think Watergate damaged us at all.

Heffner: You don’t?

Safire: I think Watergate ultimately turned out to be a very useful exercise in democracy. I think we were headed down the wrong path, started with Roosevelt and carried on by Johnson and Kennedy…invasion of privacy and snooping and wire-tapping and eaves-dropping…illegally…

Heffner: Believe it or not, I’m getting a sign that says “CUT”…cut…if you will stay where you are…

Safire: Alright.

Heffner: …we’ll cut…ill say good-bye to you, thank the audience, and then we’ll start another program. Okay?

Safire: I’m with you.

Heffner: Thanks so much for staying with me today, William Safire. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. 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 another 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 Thomas and Theresa Mullarky Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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