William Safire

The First Dissident, Part II

VTR Date: October 9, 1992

Guest: Safire, William


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: William Safire
Title: “The First Dissident”
VTR: 10/9/92 Part II

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and this is the second of a two-part series with journalist, historian, polemicist, expert on people, words and politics, New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist William Safire.

Now, let me not go on a length with an introduction because I want to pick up with Mr. Safire where we left off last time. Maybe not exactly where we left off because I have so doggone many things I do want to ask you that haven’t been asked…but you, you were saying at the end there that there is a cleansing aspect to…there was a cleansing aspect to the whole Watergate business…it pointed the finger at…you said at what had been going on for a long time from FDR, my hero, on through…tell us more about that. The cleansing aspect of Watergate.

Safire: I think what Watergate did for a whole generation was to remind us that high authority must not be wholly trusted…it can be unjust, it can be…

Heffner: As Job was…

Safire: Well…

Heffner: as Job’s god was…

Safire: …as Job’s god was. Now we know that from the Book of Job that God treated him unjustly. We, who read the Bible, or the reader of the Bible can see that this unjust…injustice was God’s way of testing Job. But from Job’s point of view, or from mankind’s point of view, which doesn’t have this opportunity to see what’s going on in the heaven, it’s unjust. And when we see this abuse of authority, and abuse of power, what should we do? And what Job suggests is that we shouldn’t just sit there and take it. That we should object at the top of our lungs, as Job did…”damn the day that I was born”, and then insist on accountability. What Job did was said, “I wish I had a lawyer, a redeemer, some intermediary, so that I could take God to court and argue with him in court to say ‘you’ve treated me unjustly’”. And then he kind of rejects that by saying “How can you argue with the supreme judge”?. And that, of course, has a political meaning for us today…how do we argue with authority when it’s, when it’s the center of power? And the answer is…we should argue, we should contest and what the Book of Job teaches is that god approves of that contest. Now in the “The Voice from the Whirlwind” poet Job’s God comes in and essentially puts down Job rather sharply, as if to say “Who are you to ask these questions?”. And Job is indeed intimidated by this theophany, this appearance of God. But when you think about it, what this man has done is he has caused God to become accountable. He’s caused him, he called him down and said, “Alright, face me and explain to me why injustice exists”. And what I go into in The First Dissident is how God symbolically explains that there may be more things on heaven and earth than mankind knows, and that it may be a grander design and that what seems like injustice may be part of a greater design of justice. But, in political terms, in confronting authority, in what we learned in Watergate, is that it’s right to challenge authority, its right to authority accountable and we find justification for that right in the Bible.

Heffner: But, you know, when I started to read The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics, i…you know, and it’s no nonsense on my part, I find it absolutely an extraordinary book, in its combination of kind of exegesis of the Bible, of Scripture and contemporary politics. I found so many things that made me think that Job, to you…the Book of Job to you, is your way of making continuing comments upon the present and recent past political scene.

Safire: Absolutely. The first comment I would like to make is the word “exegesis”, which you just sort of threw out there…

Heffner: Alright…go ahead.

Safire: …means the close examination of text. Deconstructionists you know love to take apart text. And so do i. and so do most people who write. But the purpose of taking apart and closely examining these textual things is not to say, “Aha, the meaning of this word was that”, but you back off and you say, “What was this Book of Job created for? What does it do in the Bible?”. What I say it does is interjects a note of realism into moral thinking. Most moralists, most Bible readers will say “God runs a moral universe, and you do good and you are rewarded, and you do badly and you are punished”. Well now 2,500 years ago people came to look at that and say, “That’s not the way the world works. A lot of people who are good don’t make it, and the wicked prosper. That’s the way it really is. And how can that fit in with a just god? How can earthquakes and children born with AIDS and you know, these terrible things that happen, happen to good people. How can there be a just god?”

Heffner: Do you feel that your understanding of Job is a response to that question?

Safire: I sure work on it. As most people do. Anybody who’s gone through a terrible experience, and I haven’t suffered the way most people have suffered, but anybody that has suffered at all, has to ask himself “Why? Why am I suffering? What have I done? What sins have I created?”. And what the Book of Job teaches is that suffering is not evidence of sin. It irritates me, for example, when some people say that AIDS is some kind of scourge or punishment for homosexuality. That goes right against the teaching of Job, who says that suffering is not evidence of sin. And…

Heffner: and suffering in silence is not evidence of piety.

Safire: Absolutely, you’ve got…that’s the key point of the way Job operates. He was not a patient man. He exploded when they, when they did him dirt. And when he damned the day he was born, and when he cursed God’s light…that’s pretty blasphemous, that must have really shook them up and, you know, when they’re putting together a bible.

Heffner: But when you curse god’s light, as he did…he rued the day that he was born…

Safire: Not “rued”, damned…

Heffner: Damned that day that, that he was born. If you translate that into contemporary politics, into statecraft, if you will, can we afford the Job’s who in a sense damn the day the Constitution was written, who damn the basis for our political system?

Safire: We can’t afford not to have the Jobs. We can’t afford not to have the Gandhis, who go up against colonial empire…the Sharanskys who were the first crack in the order of the Soviet Empire…the “refuseniks”…we can’t afford not to have the Sakharovs and the…those who were prisoners of conscience, who could…who could have gotten out, but chose to, to take their suffering because they knew there was power being abused and that spirit of human freedom and that courage to stand up for it, I find rooted in the Book of Job, and I think that’s why so many artists and so many thinkers have come back to this book, perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, because it sticks out of the Bible like a sore thumb. It’s irreverent, it’s blasphemous in a lot of ways…and yet, it’s not a guide to good grief, it’s not just a, a…something to say at, at a funeral…it’s…it’s a rebel’s book.

Heffner: But rebels…sure, journalists, authors, people who…

Safire: Artists.

Heffner: …artists…people on the outside, how can you institutionalize your praise for Job, not for his patience, which you say he didn’t have, but for his rebelliousness, for the dissidence that makes him what you call “The First Dissident”?

Safire: Ah…

Heffner: How can you institutionalize…how can you work at that within the framework of government. You’re outside, you do your work outside, and you gory in it.

Safire: Right. But there is a tension between freedom and order. That goes between chaos and, and order going back to the very beginning. And in, in government how much individual freedom do you give people without letting them drift into disorder? On the other hand, how much authority do you give government to keep order without losing your freedom? So there’s that balance constantly a tension that creates the kind of good society we’re shooting for.

Heffner: when we first met here 15 years ago, you were talking in those terms, and I understand that and I appreciate that everything you’ve said since and everything you’ve written fits into that, but doesn’t hat mean that the George Bush who clams up on Iraq-gate, the Richard Nixon, who clams up on Watergate, the person in authority who defends his turf, and perhaps lies, perhaps is not totally truthful, is just as legitimate in what he is doing as is Safire and Job…as are Safire and Job?

Safire: No.

Heffner: I’m watching myself.

Safire: No, no. I think…I appreciate your grammatical alertness. But I think the preservation of dissidents and the celebration of the civil liberty, it’s more important for us to do than to underline the power of central government.

Heffner: But isn’t it important for you to do…you as you…and Job as the dissidents…and important for George Bush and for Richard Nixon and if Clinton becomes President, Bill Clinton to take that opposite point of view. Aren’t you asking too much of the people you keep needling when you seem to be asking of them to embrace your dissidence?

Safire: Not a bit. Not a bit. The Freedom of Information Act is our one little window into the operations of the executive branch. And secrecy is a big thing. “You have no need to know” is a, a…is rooted in the bible where god doesn’t vouchsafe to man a great many of his secrets. And in politics, the power, the authority loves to keep secrets. I was in there, I know…keeping secretes is fun. But it’s for the rest of the free people to say “What’s so secret about that? Why can’t we know? Why can’t you be accountable?”. And so this Freedom of Information Act I, I want to see extended to the White House, not just to the Departments…the White House is now exempt. And so I bang my spoon against the high-chair and get all red in this face and, and come…and support a Freedom of Information Act extension and the Democrats are kind of for it, generally, but the White House says no. so I call Bill Clinton and say, “How do you feel about extension of Freedom of Information to the White House? Can we go in and say ‘Hey, let’s see so-and-so’s calendar and see what was going on’?.” I got a mouthful of mush saying “I’m generally in favor of disclosure but I don’t know if…blah, blah, blah…I’ll have to study that”.

Heffner: What’d you get from George Bush?

Safire: A cold shoulder completely, I think.

Heffner: What would you get from Ross Perot?

Safire: Who knows? Who knows, you know, the yellow Ross of Texas. I, I don’t think he would be very helpful in civil liberty at all.

Heffner: How could anyone who is in a power…a position of ultimate power, or may soon be in that position, how could he go along with you?

Safire: You force him out. I mean we’re the people as Ross Perot says, we own this place.

Heffner: But you don’t force him out to get in someone who’s going to say something different.

Safire: No, when I say “Force him out”, I say force him out of his hiding place…the way Job did with god. Job’s demands and Job’s arrogance and his insistence that he was being unjustly prosecuted forced God to suddenly appear, and justify himself before man. And, and he did…thunderously. And sometimes misleadingly. But you, you read the Bible and you say, “Here’s man able to irritate god to the point of God coming out and saying ‘Let me show you my…some indication of my grand design. My, my great purpose.’”. And that came about…not because mankind was patient or reverent or observant because…it was because Job had guts. And he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he wouldn’t accept injustice.

Heffner: God remained in his place despite Job’s dissidence, right?

Safire: He, he remained God, yes.

Heffner: Aren’t you afraid at times that your needling, your dissidence is going to topple, not God, but the temporal authority?

Safire: The wonderful thing about the American system is it’s “topple-able”, and it’s up for toppling every four years. And that’s why I like this two party system and I like this balance of powers because the balance of powers in our political life and in our economic forces, is also a balance, and in our theology it’s also a balance of freedom and order.

Heffner: Yeah, but you make it into a…in politics, you make it in to a party system, you drive these rascals out…

Safire: and you throw the good out…

Heffner: Right.

Safire: Alright so then it becomes the job of the “outs” to needle the “Ins”.

Heffner: Yeah, but, but Bill what I’m asking is in the process aren’t you undermining the capacity of whoever it is who is in to do what he has to do…to be God-like, to be authoritarian enough to govern, to be a governor?

Safire: In…

Heffner: aren’t you undermining our capacity as citizens to have some faith in, not blind faith, but to have some fait in the system?

Safire: I disagree. I think just the opposite, that instead of undermining, you strengthen the system by challenging it.

Heffner: Then you disagree with all those who say that Watergate and the revelations about Watergate, Iran-gate, Iraq-gate, all of these things are leading to a sense of disillusionment on the part of the people who are not…that is not leading them to go in and throw the rascals out, but not to vote.

Safire: That’s a risky run…you turn some people off. But think of the other risk, if you just accept this sort of stuff and accept abuses of power. Then you, you know, it leads toward dictatorship. In a straight choice between freedom and order I lean on the side of freedom. A lot of people lean on the side of order. It’s a mistake for either side to win. The trick is to have that tension, and order is usually more powerful than freedom and so those of us who are in…or are artists, who are in the humanities, or are teachers, who are in the media, it’s our job to afflict the comfortable and to needle them, and to force them to be more accountable as Job forced God to…

Heffner: You sure do afflict the comfortable.

Safire: Thank you.

Heffner: I know that’s a compliment to you, and I mean it that way, but…then I go on to say, you list these custodians, alright, these custodians of our freedom and you know I’ve got to say “who then will be the custodian of the custodians?”.

Safire: Quis custody ipso and artso.

Heffner: You say the media people…

Safire: That’s less of a problem. That really is…

Heffner: You don’t think you have such power that…

Safire: Against government? When you think of the power of government and the power of government to keep secrets and to act…the nipping at the heels of, of the media is relatively minor.

Heffner: You don’t find anybody in authority saying that, do you?

Safire: Oh, no.

Heffner: No one on the other side?

Safire: Thomas Jefferson complained bitterly about the damn press…toward the end when he was kind of encrusted in office. You don’t like these people who annoy you and, and, and don’t revere you. And, and Jobans are everywhere, and they’re not…they’re irascible and they’re curmudgeonly and they irritate a lot of people.

Heffner: You know I, i…going back to the question of Jobans…something you say, you’re urging people to maintain your Joban ways. “To belong to the political club of Joban dissidents a person must a) suffered grievously either by circumstance or by a personal decision to support an unpopular cause; b) have reacted angrily while in the wilderness or prison to the immorality of such hardship inflicted by those in aloof authority or cruel command; c) have refused to be brow-beaten or tortured or intimidated by anyone into silence or acceptance of unjust punishment. And on the rare occasion, and not requisite for membership d) have been reconciled to authority after having glimpsed the big picture, or after having gained some share of its power”. Now…did, did Safire go through a, b, c, and d?

Safire: well, I thought that was a good reading of an excellent graph. And the answer is “no”, I don’t presume to be a Joban.

Heffner: You don’t?

Safire: No. I have Joban tendencies, but to be, to be a Job as those criteria set forth…you’re talking about Sharansky, you’re talking about Sakharov, you’re talking about men who’ve and women who have really suffered for their conscience. We in America are blessed with such freedom that we don’t’ do that much suffering for conscience. Some, but…but the dissidents in the world particularly the ones who, who broke up the soviet Union, who broke up the Evil Empire…I think a century from now will look back and see these were the great heroes of our time, these guys who went to jail, Havel and others who ultimately achieved a victory against tyranny. And it wasn’t America as the super power militarily defeating the other. It was the, the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain who and in a civil rights movement here, too, who were able to change the world.

Heffner: Well, now, looking forward, and we just have a few minutes left here when we have just a few years left in this century, looking forward seriously, with all of the technological developments that are on the way, with all of the changes, governmental and otherwise, what’s your sense of the lot of Job in the future?

Safire: I think…well, now that you asked me about that, I would think that Job has to think in computer terms, too. We have a huge privacy problem with computers, and I think a Job today has to say to this world of machines and this war that the human mind and the human integrity must not be compromised by all the invasions of itself by, by seemingly benign computer technology.

Heffner: How successful will the Joban be at that task?

Safire: Gee, we’ve won right along…we, we’ve won here in this century.

Heffner: Your telephone was tapped…that’s technological improvement.

Safire: And somebody found out about it, and a President was thrown out about it and there’s now specific laws against it, and the government is a lot of more careful about it. So that was a great improvement. I don’t see this as disillusionment, I see this as a kind of exciting affirmation of freedom.

Heffner: and you think that the lot of the Joban may well be in the future, a happy one. Or not happy…Jobans aren’t happy…

Safire: I’m, I’m optimistic that people who challenge authority, who demand accountability from who’s ever in power are ultimately going to prevail. Now the great problem then is, if they get power who challenges them? As you said, “Quis custodian”.

Heffner: You said it.

Safire: Alright, but I was just…

Heffner: I translated it.

Safire: …right. But the point then is if that becomes a center of power there’ll always be Jobans to argue with it.

Heffner: This is the “1984” or “Brave New World” approach.

Safire: But it’s a, it’s a positive one. I’m not pessimistic at all. I think Job and the present Jobans who challenge authority are, are doing the work of freedom.

Heffner: So you think that the American involvement with freedom, and you give such wonderful expression to that, is what will prevail.

Safire: Absolutely. Freedom’s a winner. Order is necessary, but order can’t dominate freedom.

Heffner: So you want to see the tension, as you call it, between them go on.

Safire: Absolutely.

Heffner: So, come back in another ten years when we’ll be into the next century and we’ll see.

Safire: And maybe there’s another book in the bible I could find.

Heffner: Bill Safire, thank you so much for joining me today again on the Open Mind.: 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.