Sunday, September 27, 2009

RIP William Safire

Former Nixon speechwriter and op-ed columnist William Safire died of pancreatic cancer at 79. As the obits are noting, Safire was the first conservative columnist employed by the New York Times (Reasonable Right holdout David Brooks now holds what could be called the William Safire chair.)

After last week's rant about the craziness of the modern Right, it's worth remembering how Safire went about his business. Early in the Clinton years, Safire wrote a column complimenting the administrations dialogue on race. During the fallout of the Bush warrantless wiretapping revelations while much of the conservative commentariat condemned the Times for publishing them, Safire condemned the wiretapping. His column was personal -- he had been wiretapped while in the Nixon White House.

Safire both cast the mold of conservative commentators and deviated from it whenever moved to. In today's conservative movement, such deviation from orthodoxy wouldn't be tolerated. But Safire's willingness to deviate from the party line made him more credible to those of us who didn't share his views. Safire, along with contemporaries like Jack Kilpatrick and (before he sold his soul) George Will challenged me. Sometimes I had to think about why I believed differently. Sometimes I was persuaded to change my views.

In contrast, today's conservative "commentary" is easily dismissed cant. The conservatives are right that it does no service to the country when only half the political spectrum is represented in the media. It's a similarly bad thing that half the spectrum has no credibility outside of its core believers.


fargo said...

Safire was one of the last of the thoughtful conservatives. By calling out the bat shit crazies in his own party and by agreeing where he could agree with liberals he gave himself credibility.

My uncle was a hard core fiscal conservative (though socially very moderate)...we disagreed on most things but he was a great man and we had some spirited but thoughtful dialog in our time .... never lost sight of the fact that we were part of the same family.

I am sure Safire would have been none to thrilled with the town hall foolishness and the hero status of Joe Wilson.Given the Fox News formula of "We distort, you decide" I wonder if there will ever be a market for thougtful conservatism again.