Strange Bedfellow

Reading Safire’s Mind

How the Times columnist slimes Bill Clinton.

It’s been five years of frustration, but I think I’ve finally got Elvis by the short and curlies. It’s a tangled Web that POTUS has been weaving around his crony Hubbell. Now his spin has spun out of control. What everybody thinks, and nobody can print, is that the president got his Asian associates to pony up, lest a pinched pal feel the urge to sing to Starr. No evidence, but no matter. I’ll read Bill’s mind and baptize the story “hushgate.” Who knows what didn’t happen? If I’m guessing right, there’s another Pulitzer in it for me. If not, bygones will soon go bye-bye, and I’ll still make Bibi’s day. Clinton has been squeezing the settlements a bit too hard lately.

William Safire might complain that this attempt at insight into his thinking is grotesquely unjust. After all, I don’t know that Safire recognizes the unfairness of the accusations he flings around with such abandon in his column. I can’t prove that he is motivated by the quest for fame and power rather than the desire to get at the truth. I don’t even truly believe that he sticks up for the Likud Party out of personal loyalty to the Israeli prime minister rather than genuine conviction. But I could pass off all that malicious innuendo as fact, and still remain within the boundaries Safire sets for himself in his twice-weekly “Essay” column in the New York Times.

The least defensible of Safire’s columns are his intermittent efforts at “Reading Bill’s Mind.” In the latest of these, which appeared May 4, Safire projected a view inside the criminal consciousness of the president of the United States. “Just when I should feel terrific about my economic boom making possible my budget deal, I can feel the damn prosecutors closing in,” the column began. “My main vulnerability, Dave Kendall tells me, is arranging for that half million in hush money to Web Hubbell.” Even for Safire, the passage, and the column, were extraordinary. Under cover of his favorite literary device–temporarily being someone else–Safire was accusing the president of active involvement in an effort to obstruct justice–an impeachable, indictable offense.

This charge couldn’t have appeared anywhere else in the Times. Absent some kind of evidence, the reporters on the national staff who have been covering the Clinton scandals can only say that prosecutors and congressional investigators are exploring the possibility that Clinton might have had some role in arranging Hubbell’s post-employment benefits package. Even Safire’s fellow opinion columnists wouldn’t dare leap to his conclusion. They might argue, as A.M. Rosenthal did in an unusually good column a few days after Safire’s, that Clinton’s version of events doesn’t add up, and that there are strong grounds for suspicion about the serendipitous help Hubbell got. But accusing someone, even the president, of a crime without evidence crosses a divide that is usually observed even in op-ed land–the line separating plausible opinion from pure speculation.

Safire gets away with sliming Clinton by artfully exploiting his status as hybrid reporter/columnist. Unlike Rosenthal, Anthony Lewis, and other traditional op-ed page writers, Safire does actual–and sometimes extensive–reporting. He has even been known to use–how shall we say it?–strong incentives to encourage highly placed officials to leak to him. What he writes carries the implication that he knows, thanks to his inside tipsters, that which will soon come to light. But, with increasing frequency, Safire has been abusing the privileges he grants himself.

Let’s look closely at the rest of that mind-reading column: “Easy to say now that the cover-up is always worse than the crime,” the interior Clinton/Safire monologue continues. “But what were we going to do in 1994? Let Web twist in the wind? Abandon him to that sumbitch Starr, until he started talking about our use of his father-in-law as a front, about the Rose files in his basement, about what Vince Foster had been working on?

“We bought three solid years, and a re-election, by getting our friends to take care of Web.”

T he welter of innuendo here is so thick that one can hardly peer through it. Safire is saying that in 1994, Clinton had committed a variety of crimes that would, if they had been brought to light, have prevented his re-election. Hubbell, he suggests, knew about all of them, and so had to be kept quiet with bribes. But what crimes might Hubbell have kept to himself? Only Whitewater buffs will have any idea in this paragraph. But those who follow this stuff should recognize that, like the theory Clinton arranged hush money for Hubbell, Safire’s hints about what got hushed up are pure conjecture. Later in the column, Safire does some more thinking on behalf of the president: “My stonewalling just has to work past the ‘98 elections. Then I can finish out my term and pardon everybody including me on the way to Al’s inauguration.”

T he key to Safire’s deeper purpose is his promiscuous use of terms like “cover-up,” “stonewall,” “hush money,” “twist in the wind,” “hang tough,” and “pardon.” This is the lingo of Watergate, an event that remains at the center of Safire’s consciousness. As a Nixon speechwriter from 1969 until 1973, Safire managed to avoid being dragged into the scandal that ruined the careers of almost everyone he worked with. But after he joined the Times in 1973, Safire took it as his mission to exculpate Nixon and his henchmen. While the Watergate story was still breaking, Safire focused on dirty tricks by JFK and LBJ, to try to demonstrate that what Nixon had done was no worse than what previous presidents had done. In fact, he has been trying, ever since, to prove that “they all do it.”

The Carter years were represented in Safire’s column by a series of associative wordplays–“Billygate,” “Waterquiddick,” “peanutgate,” “Koreagate,” and–most significantly–“Lancegate.” Safire won a Pulitzer in 1977 for helping to force the resignation of Carter adviser Bert Lance in a scandal no one much remembers. In his excellent book Watergate in American Memory, Michael Schudson well describes Safire’s efforts to “Watergateize” Carter-administration scandals. The interesting point that emerged subsequently was that the conservative Safire wasn’t just using the Watergate comparison to bash Democrats. He was–and, weirdly enough, still is–writing principally as a Nixon apologist aiming to trivialize Watergate itself.

Though he is a graceful writer and a skilled reporter and has a sharp mind, Safire is hitting with a corked bat. No one should be angrier about this than Stephen Labaton, Jeff Gerth, and Safire’s other colleagues at the Times who have patiently pursued the Clinton scandals in a careful way. Safire’s journalistic cheating undermines their professional work. Back during the first term, when Safire called the first lady a “congenital liar,” his hyperbole overshadowed the fibs Hillary Rodham Clinton was accused of telling. The weight of the Times is such that unfairness anywhere in the paper casts a shadow over legitimate stories that appear elsewhere.

I know, I know. But the old dog’s been at it going on 25 years. Can’t ask him to learn a new trick.