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William Safire puts in a few good words for dissidents


No one said being a Joban was going to be easy.

"The Joban life is the life spent maintaining personal convictions," William Safire writes in his newly published book, "The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today's Politics."

And here it was on a Wednesday, less than a week before Election Day, and he was doing what any number of good citizens have done recently: Discussing who would get his vote for president.

The problem was that Mr. Safire, the influential political columnist for the New York Times, had peeked behind Door No. 1, Door No. 2 and Door No. 3, and hadn't liked any of the choices. He announced his displeasure in a long Oct. 18 cover story in the Times Sunday magazine, and the piece contained this killer sentence: "Yet here am I, a lifelong Republican, a card-carrying conservative, a right-wing pundit with foursquare opinions on anything you can name -- with two weeks and two days to go before a national election -- and not yet sure about which hole in the card to punch for President."

But now, during a lunchtime interview, he allowed he had made up his mind. "I decide for good this afternoon, in the column I'm working on -- I've got it in my head," Mr. Safire, 62, said cryptically, tapping his cranium. "I've just got to write it."

The discussion went on to other things -- back to the Book of Job, which had drawn his curiosity more than 40 years ago, when Mr. Safirewas an undergraduate at Syracuse University. Back to his love of words, manifested in "On Language," his enormously popular Sunday column about words and their use. "I love them because they're my tools," he said. "I regard [words] like a carpenter regards his tools." Asked which writers are his favorite stylists, his first choice was Baltimore novelist Anne Tyler, "because she writes such graceful paragraphs."

And back, again and again, to politics, an early and still powerful love of his. Mr. Safire was a speech writer for Richard Nixon in the late '60s and early '70s; since 1973 he has written his column for the Times, as well as two novels and several books on language and politics. He has seen politics inside and out, as a Republican partisan and as a member of the media. And the enthusiasm hasn't waned.

His appearance doesn't suggest he's a major player in Washington journalism. Mr. Safire is a decidedly casual person, dressed in bland shades of brown that suggest what Ward Cleaver might have become in late-middle age. In conversation, he's genial and witty, but seldom delves into areas that might be considered emotional or personally revealing.

But his love of the grand show of American politics, his marvelous use of the language and his independence has made him a force in Washington, and in journalism.

"He's one of the heroes of my book," says Eric Alterman, author of the recently published "Sound & Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics," a scathing look at political journalism. "I disagree with almost everything Safire believes, but I have enormous admiration for his skill as a reporter and his abilities as a stylist. But most important, he's an honest man.

Always an independent

"People are shocked by how hard he is going after Bush on the Iraq case [Mr. Safire has criticized the administration for its policies toward that country before the gulf war]. "They shouldn't be. He's always been independent."

Mr. Safire's columns always have been taken seriously by both the Reagan and Bush administrations, and his harsh pronouncements on Mr. Bush in the Oct. 18 article ("No one ever says, 'Let Bush be Bush,' because nobody can be sure what that means") were no exception.

"We've had no formal or official reaction," said Jim Lake, a spokesman for the Bush/Quayle campaign. "I know a lot of individuals were probably pretty disappointed. But we also know that Bill has been a pretty solid guy over the years, notwithstanding what shortcomings he may perceive in the president.

"We can't imagine he would think Bill Clinton would be seriously considered by any conservative . . ."

Mr. Safire shrugged when told of Mr. Lake's comments. "You cannot worry too much about the consequences of what you do," he answered. "You maintain your ways, and call 'em as you see 'em. There is a certain responsibility about not making a late hit that cannot be answered, which is why we ran the piece two weeks before the election rather than the Sunday before."

Safire's serious side

This serious side of William Safire is not often seen in his playful "On Language" columns, but it is at the heart of "The First Dissident," an unlikely offering from a Washington political columnist. The first half of the book takes a critical look at the Book of Job, examining how interpretations of it have changed over the centuries -- from Job as the unquestioning servant of God to the epitome of moral defiance. The second half takes the lessons learned from Job as they can be applied to modern-day politics.

Mr. Safire wrote in the introduction: "This puzzling and infuriating biblical character has haunted my life." Over lunch, he explained/

"The question of the innocent suffering is the great question, and a subsidiary question is: Why is life unfair?" he said. "That, of course, is more of a political question. I remember back at Syracuse University, before I dropped out, reading 'Moby-Dick' and the monomania of Ahab going after the whale. That was Job- an."

He credits working on the book with strengthening his Jewish faith -- "it's turned me from kind of a skeptical believer to a more fervent one." Politically, too, he has been energized.

"The importance of writing this rather than 10 years ago is that it was the dissidents -- the Sakarovs, the Shcharanskys -- that busted up the Soviet empire," he said. "That was in combination with the arms race that ruined the economy, but if the economy had been ruined and there had been no dissident movement, then Gorbachev would not have gotten away with his reforms."

So, he continued, "I now have my eye out for Jobans. There are none running in this election, but I would like to think that I'll spot 'em."

Ross Perot, or his followers, don't qualify as Jobans. "Ross Perot does not care who wins," Mr. Safire wrote in a recent column, "so long as he can get even with the media for having exposed him last summer as a pious fraud." As for Mr. Perot's followers, Mr. Safire dismissed the idea they were the principled dissenters he champions in his book.

"These are not Joban dissenters, these are outrage groupies -- the same people who liked Jerry Brown and Pat Buchanan," he said dismissively as he finished his corned beef and cabbage. "They're the 'aginners,' and dissenters are not aginners. Dissenters are against, but they are willing to suffer for some noble purpose -- essentially freedom or democracy."

So who would his choice turn out to be: the grievously disappointing Mr. Bush, or else the "winking, wonking Bill Clinton and his masked army of Little Rock liberals," as Mr. Safire characterized the Democratic candidate and his coterie in the infamous Oct. 18 story? On Thursday morning, the answer came out in Mr. Safire's column.

'Arrogance of insiderdom

"My own key trigger this year, which is probably not most people's, is bunkerism -- a corrosive penchant for secrecy, compounded by ethical blindness to conflict of interest," Mr. Safire wrote. "A generation ago [in the Nixon administration], I saw that arrogance of insiderdom destroy an administration and many people's lives; that's why the need for Washington glasnost seizes me now."

Mr. Safire continued that the president "has just personally and publicly joined Attorney General William Barr, his former CIA aide, in the Iraqgate cover-up." Then he concluded: "New York Times columnists traditionally do not endorse any candidate, and I'm for traditional values. But any reader who cannot figure out against whom this lifelong Republican is voting this year isn't trying."

It was Mr. Clinton after all, if most reluctantly arrived at. Reached by phone at his office in the Times' Washington bureau, Mr. Safire said no, he hadn't heard from anyone in the administration about the column. But there was a call from Daniel Moynihan, the Democratic senator from New York and an old friend.

"Pat Moynihan said he would be sending over some [Clinton] bumper stickers and a car for me if I wanted," Mr. Safire said. And was it hard to write for this "card-carrying Republican" to write the column?

Mr. Safire's response was swift: "I thought I could do it in as surly a way as I could."

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