Investigative Columnist

Safire’s Washington.
by William Safire.
Times Books. 534 pp. $17.50.

In 1973, William Safire left the White House staff, where he had been one of Richard Nixon’s main speechwriters, and joined the New York Times as a regular columnist. A few months after he had made this transition, the publisher of the Times, Arthur O. Sulzberger, received an irate letter from David Halberstam, a former Times reporter, who was then writing a book about the media. Halberstam imperiously advised Sulzberger to kill Safire’s column. “It’s a lousy column and it’s a dishonest one. So close it. Or you will end up just as shabby as Safire,” wrote Halberstam.

This attempt to eliminate a point of view in the press was ironic coming from Halberstam—who as the Times man in Vietnam had himself been the object of a similar effort by President John F. Kennedy—and met with no success. Sulzberger coldly replied that while he did not always agree with Safire, he remained “confident that over the years he will be an important contributor to the New York Times.”

As it turned out, Safire won a Pulitzer Prize, and became one of the most powerful and important journalists in America. His investigations into the Carter administration contributed, perhaps more than the work of any other journalist, to changing the public perception of the Carter Presidency from one of homey honesty to one of red-neck corruption. Indeed, he has presented more scoops in his column than one finds on the front page of any other newspaper.

Safire did not, however, begin as an investigative journalist. His earliest columns for the Times were mainly devoted to arguing that the press was applying a much different criterion of judgment to the Nixon administration from the one it had applied to the earlier Kennedy-Johnson administrations. The flaw in the logic of this “double-standard” charge was the assumption that journalism is some form of judicial process. Of course it is not. Unlike the judicial process, which is rooted in the historic evaluation of cases in terms of their proximate precedents, journalism exists almost entirely in the present. It is criticism of the moment at the moment. It requires no elaborate institutional memory to fit events into historic context. Fairness is considered to be reporting all sides of a controversial issue, not bringing in past analogies. Safire’s double standard, though intellectually provocative, proved therefore irrelevant as a criticism of journalistic practice, and ineffective as a defense of the Nixon administration.

As his column developed, however, Safire showed himself to be a rapid learner of the art of journalism. Unlike most other columnists of the mid-70’s, who focused their passions on conventional causes like the Vietnam war, Safire found for himself an entirely original cause: Sarbasti, which, as his readers soon learned, means freedom in Kurdish. In a series of essays with such titles as “Of Kurds and Conscience,” “The Kurdish Question,” and “Mr. Ford’s Secret Sellout,” Safire charged that the Kurdish people, who had been seeking self-determination in the mountains of Iraq, had been brutally betrayed by President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger. In a batch of CIA documents, Safire found that the United States had terminated clandestine arms shipments to the Kurds in 1975. The support had originally been given to the Kurds at the request of the Shah of Iran, who wanted to harass neighboring Iraq; it ended when the Shah settled his outstanding differences with Iraq. Safire argued that this had represented a betrayal of the freedom-loving Kurdish people, and he attacked Kissinger as “insensitive” for having said by way of explanation that “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”

Yet harsh as this made Kissinger sound, he was right. The Kurds were demanding freedom not only in Iraq but in Turkey and Iran. If the United States had supported such a claim with guns, it would have undercut both these allies (and, in 1975, Turkey and Iran were both important allies of the United States). Still, whatever the merits of the Kurdish cause, Safire managed to ferret out enough secret material on the issue to embarrass severely both Kissinger and Ford.

Then, in 1977, he turned his investigative talents to a far more productive cause: demolishing the credibility of President Carter’s closest adviser, Bert Lance. In his years in the White House, Safire had come to understand all the artful techniques of evasion used by press officers; and now he turned this insider’s knowledge against the White House. Under acerbic titles like “Carter’s Broken Lance,” “Boiling the Lance,” and “The Skunk at the Garden Party,” Safire mercilessly exposed falsities, contradictions, and ironies in what became known as “the Lance affair.” The relentless pressure helped keep the issue before the public eye, and was in no small measure responsible for Lance’s forced resignation.

Through these mini-exposes, Safire has developed into one of the finest investigative reporters in the universe of daily journalism. In the later columns, he displays an uncanny eye for evidence of governmental cover-ups, especially in analyzing official statements. Moreover, unlike many of his peers, he shows a real understanding of the limits—and vulnerabilities—of the power of the White House. It was therefore not surprising to find him unraveling the scandal concerning the President’s brother, Billy Carter, and the Libyan government. In general, his columns provide a fascinating catalogue of the legerdemain, weasel words, and tricks-of-the-trade used by politicians to hide, confuse, and divert attention from embarrassing happenings.

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The politics of Safire appear to be a cross between Republican pragmatism and journalistic libertarian-ism. With few exceptions, the targets of his attack tend to be liberal Democrats, such as Senator Kennedy, or key members of Democratic administrations, present and past. The defining political assumption underlying his column is that almost all governmental activities flow out of partisan motivations. The first casualty in this partisan tug of war is the judicial system. For example, in explaining the failure of the Justice Department under President Carter to investigate fully Korean bribes to Democrats in Congress, Safire writes: “One reason was that Democratic investigations of Democrats are not as zest-filled as Democratic investigations of Republicans.” In the world according to Safire, justice is unequally distributed, and party affiliation is a key determinant of who benefits. He describes the Justice Department in fact as a “Democratic plum tree.”

Even though Safire’s schema hardly provides an explanation for everything in the judicial process—Democratic Congressmen were entrapped and prosecuted by a Democratic Justice Department in the Abscam case—it has given him a string of scathing insights into Justice Department machinations in the cases of Bert Lance and Billy Carter.

On social issues such as abortion, pornography, and political protests, Safire adopts a surprisingly liberal stance: liberal, at least, in the sense of John Stuart Mill. He generally argues that there is a private sphere of personal conscience, which does not directly impinge on society, and into which the state should not gratuitously intervene. Moreover, like most other journalists, he vehemently defends all the privileges journalists have assumed in recent years—thus demonstrating, perhaps, that the desire to protect one’s own is not confined to politicians or government alone.

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