News & Politics

No Bull Bill


When Bill Safire drives from the New York Times bureau in downtown DC to his home in Chevy Chase–a brick mini-manse with an ivy-covered wrought-iron fence and concrete lions guarding the front door and the cherry tree he planted when he moved there in 1969–he occasionally picks up the cell phone and dials up his best friend in Washington.

"Dan," he says. "I'm driving home. Gota drink?"

Dan is Dan Schorr, the reliably liberal commentator for National Public Radio.

"C'mon over," Schorr answers.

Over drinks, and perhaps dinner if Safire is free, the two old warriors of punditry discuss the news of the day.

"We'll chew over everything we disagree about," says Safire, "which is everything."

Let's say it's one of Safire's many columns crusading for the war in Iraq or fawning over George Bush's tax cuts.

"Screwball idea," Schorr would say.

And they would argue. And maybe laugh.

It was no joke in 1976 when Schorr made public a secret CIA document, CBS suspended him, and he was forced off the air.

"A lot of people turned away from me in those days," Schorr says. "He didn't."

Safire was three years into his career as a columnist for the Times when CBS let Schorr go. He whipped off a column called "What Is the Press?" in which he said CBS chief William Paley was ridding himself of Schorr because he had reported Paley's arrangement to allow the CIA to use reporters as cover.

It is a feature of the private Bill Safire that he is fearsomely loyal. He takes care of his friends, especially when they are down.

In the late 1970s Ariel Sharon was just another outcast retired Israeli general. "I liked him," Safire says. "When nobody would talk to him in the Carter years, I stayed in touch."

Now that Sharon is the Israeli prime minister, Safire can call his office or his farm to kibitz.

"Why don't you call more often?" Sharon said in one conversation.

"You sound like my grandmother," Safire replied.

Safire sounds like a writer who's finding it harder to muster the rage that fueled thousands of acerbic tirades, such as the ones about Frank Sinatra's gangster ties and Tip O'Neill's liberal tilt and Bill Clinton's personal indiscretions.

"I have a hard time obsessing these days," he says. "I miss Clinton."

Safire dedicated his new book, No Uncertain Terms, a collection of his On Language columns, to Lisbeth and Daniel Schorr.

"I wept," Schorr said.

Is Big Bad Bill turning into Sweet William now?

This year marks William Safire's third decade as a New York Times columnist; he's been writing a Sunday column, On Language, for 24 years. He shows his passions–hard on national security, fierce on protecting civil liberties–in his columns. But his life beyond the written word is largely unexamined, especially for a man who has arguably had more impact on politics and public policy than any columnist since the brothers Alsop.

There is no memoir, no biography, none in the works.

Safire doesn't invite examination. I am warned that he gives an opaque interview. It takes me three months to schedule an appointment, and I have to promise to mention his new book. My moment arrives. I ask how long we have, hoping for at least an hour. He looks at his watch.

"Forty-five minutes," he says.

Dressed in comfortable, professorial clothes, he attempts to relax in his high-backed armchair. He wears a thin smile that I could read as slight amusement or the look of a man counting the minutes he has to suffer a fool. But in the brief interview and another in his home, he begins to reveal some of himself.

Safire is protective of his time because he's adding, not subtracting, projects; he's nowhere close to quitting, even as the Times may be starting to groom his successor.

"I run out of steam at 2 AM," he admits.

We are in his office in the Times's Washington bureau one spring afternoon. If not for the computer, his office could pass for the library of a 19th-century academic. Long oak table covered in papers, leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare in the oak bookshelves, Oriental rugs, leather couches–and whales. Safire has a whale fetish. Ceramic whales, wooden whales, marble whales. "Moby-Dick was the first book I really studied. I read it a few times," he says. And Job is his Biblical hero.

To get to his lair you walk past the reporters in the newsroom; past his language library with 13 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary and hundreds of other books that are grist for his weekly column on wording; through the anteroom where his assistant, Ann Wort, has been keeping tabs on him and people at bay since 1981.

A fax has just come over the wire. The Pulitzer board has appointed Safire cochair of the committee that will award next year's prizes.

"Who'da thunk 30 years ago that a Nixon speechwriter would wind up cochair of the Pulitzer committee?" he says. "Shows there's life after death."

True, he did work for Richard Nixon from the late 1960s until 1973. For the last 30 years he's penned a few thousand columns, written 28 books, won a Pulitzer Prize. Granted, the trim young man with a dark head of hair peering earnestly from the back cover of his 1978 political dictionary now looks at the world through large round glasses. His hair is graying and moving farther up his forehead. His features are softening. He treads carefully. He is 73.

Every description of Safire leans on his Nixon years as if they were the central feature of his life. That would be like describing George W. Bush as a baseball-team owner. True, but that's not what made him president.

It is much more precise to describe Bill Safire as a veteran journalist. He rarely points out the fact that he is a newspaperman by blood, by labor, by instinct.

His first job at age 11 was standing by an oil-fired kettle at Broadway and 90th Street on Saturday nights folding the next day's New York Times for 50 cents an hour.

His role model is not Dick Nixon but a 19th-century muckraker named William Cobbett. Safire might have the world's most complete collection of Cobbett's works.

He learned the inquisitiveness of a reporter, the basics of column writing, and the joys of interviewing people by working for the New York Herald Tribune.

But how did he come by the guts and energy to write three columns a week that are often powered by passion for politics or words? I ask him three times. He waffles twice. Finally, he gives a straight answer:

"My mother."

Ida Panish Safir moved into the Windermere Hotel at 666 West End Avenue in the early 1940s with her youngest son, Bill. Her husband, Oliver Craus Safir, had died young, and she had to support the family. Marty Tolchin, a New Yorker transplanted to Washington–where he worked with Safire at the Times bureau–grew up in the same building.

"It was great for working moms," says Tolchin, whose mother also was widowed. "There was room service if they couldn't get home in time to make dinner."

Tolchin remembers Ida Safir (Bill Safire added an "e" to the family name) as a "short, peppy, lovely, and very maternal woman."

Safire agrees but adds another dimension.

"What pushed me along is I had a wonderfully demanding mother," he says. "She kept a knuckle in my back to try for the best schools. She pushed me. That impetus was there."

Which is why young Bill tried out for Bronx High School of Science, the top public school in the city. Every day Tolchin and Safire took the crosstown bus and subway from the West End to the Bronx.

"Neither of us was the greatest math or science student they ever had," says Tolchin. He says he graduated at the bottom of his class; Safire got out in the middle. Both worked for the school newspaper but on the business side.

The two buddies lost contact after they went off to college, Tolchin out west and Safire to Syracuse. Tolchin recalls seeing his old friend one summer. Safire's brother Len, nine years his senior, had gotten him on as a researcher with Tex McCrary and his wife, Jinx, columnists for the New York Herald Tribune.

Tolchin asked what Safire was doing.

"Interviewing Eisenhower," he said.

And Marlon Brando and Mae West. Red Barber and Somerset Maugham. Lucky Luciano and Eddie Arcaro, luminaries large and small of the late 1940s and early 1950s who might make column fodder for Tex and Jinx.

They dispatched the 19-year-old cub reporter to a hotel room to interview the sex goddess of the day. The blonde and buxom Mae West was reclining on a chaise longue in her hotel suite. The teenage Safire asks the sex goddess why she has chosen a certain director to stage her latest show.

"I wanted a director that wasn't too young, one that knew all the old tricks, because . . . mmmmmm . . . I knew all the new ones," West said.

Safire reprised that interview in a column on the occasion of the opening of a play about West three years ago. How could he write a column with quotes from 54 years ago? Is it his memory? Not exactly.

Safire rises from his chair, walks over to his bookcase, and returns with a bound collection of the Tex and Jinx columns from the Herald Tribune. He has applied yellow Post-its to pages, some that he has referred to in past columns and some that will reemerge in a future essay.

The column he remembers as his favorite is not one of the series on Bert Lance that won him the Pulitzer in 1978. Or the recent one about Jayson Blair, in which he presented himself as the grandfatherly voice of the New York Times scolding his colleagues to "slap a metaphoric cold steak over our huge black eye" from Blair's plagiarisms and get on with the business of being Timesmen.

Safire points me to the Mae West column because it reaffirms his roots as a reporter rather than as a Nixonite.

Safire was doing PR for the World's Fair in Moscow when he encountered Richard Nixon.

After working for the Tribune and then helping to produce Tex and Jinx shows for radio and TV, Safire went into the public-relations business. He left Syracuse University after two years and never graduated.

In 1959 he was promoting the "typical American house" in the US exhibition at the World's Fair. Vice President Nixon was escorting Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev through the exhibit. When they reached Safire's kitchen, the PR man hemmed them in with crowds so they might continue a combative discussion about power and economics under capitalist or communist systems.

In a vituperative exchange that ranged from the power of washing machines to the strength of rockets, the two leaders jabbed fingers at each other. Safire saw that an AP photographer couldn't get close enough. He signaled for the camera. The photographer tossed it to him, and he snapped a famous shot that captured what became known as "the kitchen debate."

When the crowd cleared, Nixon approached Safire. "You publicized this house pretty well," the Vice President said.

"Thanks to you, it's famous," Safire responded.

Safire considered himself a Republican, but he was not especially political. He and Tolchin recall going to a rally for a leftist named Vito Marcantonio when they were about 12 years old. "It was the quality of the buttons that counted," Safire says.

When Richard Nixon asked him there in Moscow to join his presidential campaign, Safire didn't immediately see it as the answer to his dreams. But he did agree to take his writing and PR skills to the Nixon cause.

At the Republican convention in 1960, Nixon was the moderate choice of Republicans who rejected Barry Goldwater's conservative positions. Nixon lost the election to Jack Kennedy; Safire and Nixon went their separate ways.

Safire stayed in contact with Nixon during his political losses and exiles. When Nixon made his comeback in 1967, Safire joined the inner circle with Leonard Garment, Bob Ellsworth, Ray Price, John Mitchell, Richard Kleindienst, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Herbert Stein, Arthur Burns, George Shultz, Bob Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman.

The "Nixon hands" became characters in Before the Fall, Safire's account of his White House years. It is the most revealing of Safire's books.

As a wordsmith, Safire can take credit for writing the immortal line "nattering nabobs of negativism" for Vice President Spiro Agnew.

As one of the few Jews who found a home in the Nixon crowd, Safire has come under fire for being an apologist for a political leader who would, behind closed doors, spew anti-Semitic remarks.

In Before the Fall, Safire devoted a chapter to "Nixon and the Jews." Not until the chapter's end did he choose to broach his boss's anti-Semitic remarks, just then revealed on tapes.

"It simply did not fit in all we knew about Nixon's attitude toward Jews," he wrote, "and it fit perfectly with most Jews' suspicions of latent anti-Semitism in Nixon, which all of us had worked so hard to allay."

Nixon "treated the relatively many Jews around him with no Jewish consciousness on his part . . . which is the best way for it to be."

In translation, Safire never quit being Nixon's apologist, even when Nixon's anti-Semitism came out of the closet.

But Safire did quit the White House in 1973, with the intention of starting his own public-relations firm.

Early that year, Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, wanted to add a conservative voice to his op-ed page, which was liberally attacking Nixon. The publisher had taken Safire's measure when Safire had faced off with Frank Mankiewicz in a series of 1972 campaign essays published in the Washington Post. The Post offered Safire a job writing columns. Sulzberger made a better offer. Safire chose his hometown paper.

Weeks later, Watergate broke.

Says Safire: "I got out just in the nick of time."

That spring the Washington bureau was breaking stories about the Watergate scandal that would lead to Nixon's eventual disgrace and resignation. Bringing Safire inside was seen almost as an act of treachery.

Ironically, his childhood friend Marty Tolchin was at the same time dispatched from the Times's New York office to the Washington bureau. There was some thought in the bureau that Tolchin was a spy for editor Abe Rosenthal.

"We were both pariahs," Tolchin says. For months he and Safire would lunch alone.

Safire was afforded two perks at the outset. He was allowed to name his column. He chose Essay. He was allowed to write his own headlines. For the first column, he chose OPENERS.

And in that very first column, a famous colleague spanked him for misusing a figure of speech. He asked readers to let him "trot around the bases."

"First," Red Smith wrote in a note, "you have to hit a home run."

Safire started writing two columns a week and hitting soft line drives. But he still was not scoring in the eyes of his colleagues until the staff picnic later that summer. He and his wife, Helene, were sitting by the pool when a child of one of the reporters fell in and started to flail around. Safire's wife pushed him in, fully clothed. He fished out the child. It didn't hurt, either, when news leaked that Nixon had put a wiretap on Safire's phone while he was a "trusted aide."

"At that point," Safire says, "I was accepted into the family."

In 1977 he hit Bert Lance over the fence.

Up to that point he had been writing gauzy columns that explained rather than probed. He was still a bit of an apologist, even for Gerald Ford, until then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger angered him on human-rights matters.

"So I think at that point something happened in my development as a writer," Safire said in 1977 on The Open Mind, a New York radio show hosted by Richard Heffner. "I stopped sucking my thumb and staring at the wall and started getting on the phone and getting out and talking to people and trying to find out why this was going on. And now what I do in my column is more reporting than I used to do."

La nce was the new Safire's first victim. Alone among Washington journalists, Safire wrote column after column pointing out that Jimmy Carter's budget director had commingled his tangled web of financial and bank dealings with his work for the government. Senators and columnists ridiculed Safire. He says it was his worst time in Washington. Finally, reporters started following Safire's trail, Lance was hauled before congressional committees, and he resigned.

Safire won a Pulitzer, but the Lance affair is important in understanding Safire for two other reasons: It established him as a muckraker who was not slavish toward the White House, and it proved that he was a reporter by training.

"It goes back to the Herald Tribune," he says.

Safire's way of kindly ushering me out is to offer a tour of the Times bureau. We take a left out of his door and pass the offices of Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd, the two other Washington-based columnists.

"It's called Murderer's Row," he says. "All sweet, gentle, kind, loving people."

Just joking.

"Really," he says, "we get along really well. We like each others' writing, we like each other as human beings. We disagree a lot politically, but we love the language and love the Times. We help each other."

Dowd's door is open this afternoon, which is rare, according to a few reporters. Friedman is out of the country. For the reporters in the bureau, Safire is the most available and the most helpful. Reporters can get a historical perspective from Safire, and they can get tips and suggestions.

Safire describes "a wall of separation between the editorial and op-ed side and the news side." Yet for Safire, that wall is porous.

"Often I pass on to the news desk what I consider to be a good story," he says. "We'll help each other."

Safire points to stories and columns in January 1989 describing Germany's direct support to construction of a poison-gas plant in Libya, then seen as one of the most menacing nations in the Middle East.

Investigative reporters Stephen Engelberg and Michael Gordon broke a story about Germany's role in the gas plant. At the same time Safire blasted away with three columns in which he referred to the German connection as "Auschwitz-in-the-sand."

But Safire's zeal to make facts fit his point of view have, at least on one occasion, given ammunition to those who question his sources and his reporting.

Late last year and earlier this year, when President Bush was lobbying for support to launch a military attack against Saddam Hussein, Safire wrote columns confirming the "Iraq connection" linking Hussein and terrorist Osama bin Laden. It was red meat for prowar propagandists but thin on facts.

Safire based his evidence for the terrorist tie on an article by Times reporter Patrick Tyler, who reported that an Iraqi intelligence official had met with Mohamed Atta, the leader of the September 11 attacks against American targets.

Safire wrote that the purported meeting was "the undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks."

The problem is that not one other journalist, nor the FBI nor the CIA, could confirm such a meeting. And Czech leaders who first reported the meeting have since backed off.

As there has been no solid evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there has been no evidence of any meeting tying Hussein to bin Laden. Safire has never felt the need to correct the record.

Says Safire: "If I say undisputed, that's not right. It is disputed." But he adds, "I don't feel the need to correct the record until the facts become clear."

In an April 27 column, Maureen Dowd mentioned her colleague on Murderer's Row:

"There are Rummy people: Mr. Cheney, Mr. Wolfowitz, Mr. Feith, Bill Kristol, William Safire, Ariel Sharon, Fox News, National Review, The Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the fedayeen of the Defense Policy Board–Richard Perle, James Woolsey, Mr. Gingrich, Ken Adelman–and the fifth column at State, John Bolton and Liz Cheney."

Is he pleased about being grouped with Rummy people?

"Ideologically and philosophically, sure," he tells me. "She lumped all the neocons, hawks, and hardliners. I'm right in there."

For a man who describes himself as a hawk and a hardliner, Safire has cultivated some unexpected friendships. And unlikely enemies. George Herbert Walker Bush, the first Bush in the White House, has not spoken to Safire since the columnist ridiculed him in print back in 1990. Safire thought so little of Bush One that he voted for Bill Clinton.

"My only apostasy," he tells me.

But the fact is that Bill Safire is most predictable and least effective, despite his eloquence, when he opines about hawkish and hardline matters. On Iraq, for example, his voice was lost among a chorus of columnists competing to conquer Saddam.

He is one-note on Israel and brandishes his special relationship with "Arik" Sharon.

"I don't feel the least bit ashamed or embarrassed about presenting his views," Safire tells me, "because they are my views. Actually, mine are a little more hawkish."

Safire exerts the most influence when he cuts against the conservative dogma.

Take his columns about the Patriot Act and other government efforts to mine and control personal information as a response to the post-September 11 terrorist threat. When most right-wingers were falling in line with the Bush administration, Safire excoriated the Bushies for endeavoring to intrude on fundamental civil liberties.

"Things came together, and I let loose a blast," Safire says. "All my compatriots denounced me. I got great letters from liberals. The asked if I had gone crazy. No. It fit in my philosophy of libertarian conservatism. It's the right of the individual under the Bill of Rights to go tell the government to go hang."

Me mo to the next journalist who tries to interview Bill Safire: Tell him you love dogs, especially Bernese mountain dogs.

Geneva and Sebastian are his third pair. I arrange a photo session with the dogs. I use them as my Trojan horse and arrive with the photographer. Geneva likes me. I'm in.

Safire at home is a man in his element, a world of books. He has three libraries: off the bedroom, on the first floor, and in the basement where he holds annual gatherings with friends. Helene, a successful jewelry artist now working in glass, has her studio off the kitchen.

The downstairs den houses Safire's collection of leather-bound books. It is properly ponderous and musty, with the obligatory dictionary open on a stand. The shelves hold his first editions of William Blake and original dictionaries. And English muckraker William Cobbett.

"He was the first media giant who was known among the common people," Safire says. "He was thrown out of England for libel. He was thrown out of the US. He survived it all and wound up a member of Parliament."

And he wound up as a character in Scandalmonger, Safire's latest novel, published in 2000 (copyrighted by "the Cobbett Corporation").

Any identification between Safire and the scandalmongers of the past?

"Oh, sure," he says.

If William Cobbett provides a window into Safire's journalistic soul, the travails of Job shed a light on the columnist's moral compass. Safire chose the Book of Job as the exegesis for his book The First Dissident, which applies the story of Job to current politics. Job was a wealthy, happy man whose life was ruined by a series of tragedies. How did he relate to God? Did he accept or question his fate? The biblical Job refused to roll over.

"The point of the book is that it's okay to object to injustice," Safire told radio interviewer Richard Heffner in a 1992 interview. "And it's okay to assert yourself against even the highest authority if the highest authority is wrong."

Job was a rebel, and Bill Safire has a bit of the rebel in him, too.

But he is a rebel with soft hands. He has to keep all of his leather-bound books in shape, so he mixes up lanolin and neat's-foot oil and rubs his books by hand. It keeps them from drying up and cracking from age.

What keeps Safire from cracking?

A dozen years ago his late friend David Mahoney convinced him to devote some time to something other than writing columns and books. Safire went on the board of the Dana Foundation, a private organization that funds science, health, and education, primarily neuroscience research. Safire now chairs the board. He also serves as a trustee for Syracuse University: "I represent the dropouts."

Safire is standing on the steps of his brick manse, admiring his cherry tree and his flower garden. "I stay very active," he tells me. "Keeps my adrenaline going. One thing all the neuroscientists agree on is that using your brain keeps it healthy."

Though Safire shows no signs of slowing down, the Times seems to have begun considering a successor. Word in the Washington bureau is that John Tierney, a veteran journalist who worked for the Washington Star, is in position to write a column from Washington. A reporter for most of his career, he has written a regional column about New York. He is no doctrinaire conservative, perhaps a libertarian, but he has taken muckraking positions on many issues.

Tierney or a pretender will have to be patient. In the pantheon of Times columnists, James Reston stopped writing a regular column at age 77, Tom Wicker was off the op-ed page at 65, and Anthony Lewis wrote his last column at 74. Safire, now 73, could be writing Essay for another decade, which would be his fourth.