Tuesday, September 29, 2009

William Safire, R.I.P.

By Mitchell Hadley

My first encounter with the powerful words of William Safire came from a novel he'd written shortly after leaving the Nixon White House, a political thriller called Full Disclosure that told the story of a president who had been blinded during an assassination attempt, and was now the target of political enemies who sought, under the terms of the 25th Amendment, to declare him incapacitated. It was a terrific read, full of everything a thriller should have – sex, blackmail, intrigue, deception – you name it.

What I remember most about that book was that there was no sense of the former White House staffer out to settle grudges, pursue ideological agendas, or the like. It may well have been present – in fact, given the vivid character portrayls, I’m fairly sure he might have used some real people as models along the way – but it didn’t overwhelm a book that moved at lightning speed. It was also rare in that it avoided proselytizing and pious moralizing and came at you more like a potboiler than a poli-sci textbook. (That came in his second novel, Freedom, a Civil War story that again gave us vivid characters but was so entwined with real events that it was forced to move at history’s slower pace rather than the breakneck speed of the novelist.) And it an age where we’ve gotten used to famous political figures of the past and present putting out sordid political thrillers with the assistance of ghost writers, there was no doubt that Safire was the author of every word between the covers.

Safire had been a terrific speechwriter; he was the author of the famous Spiro Agnew line “Nattering nabobs of negativism,” which should have put him in some kind of hall of fame for the alliteration alone. He was, I’d guess, one of the first of the celebrity political speechwriters, which I suppose means we have to hold him accountable for gadflies like Peggy Noonan, but given everything else he did, I think we can give him a pass on that. You can’t always blame the sins of the sons (and daughters) on the father, after all.

He was a long-time columnist for The New York Times, and I always had the impression that his experience there pushed him ever-so-softly toward the political center. (He endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992, but given that I’d campaigned for Pat Buchanan and had no great love myself for Bush, I suppose this too was a forgivable offense.) I didn’t agree with him on everything, but he was a pundit – Buchanan, with whom he had a regrettable falling-out in later years, is another – with whom you’d better be prepared to articulate your disagreements, because he could be most persuasive to a great many people.

His best work, however, might have been those delightful pieces on language, which were those of a man who in turn took delight in the language, finding it a wonderful linguistic sandbox that combined the precise nature of mathematics with the creative flair of the artist. The last book of his I bought was a collection of speeches by the famous and not-so-famous, valuable not only for the rhetorical brilliance of the speeches themselves, but also for Safire’s brief introductory notes, pointing out such things as the rhetorical tools and devices that made Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech so effective.

Safire was a fixture on shows like Meet the Press, but he was – first and foremost – a writer. It reminds me that one of the heroes of Full Disclosure was a young White House speechwriter who also happened to be quite the stud in bed. Coming from some writers, this would have fallen somewhere between audacity and self-aggrandizement, but in Safire’s hands, it seemed more tongue-in-cheek, an inside joke he couldn’t resist. I think that served William Safire well. He was very sharp, witty, brilliantly erudite – but you got the feeling that he didn’t really take it all that seriously.

At the same time, though, perhaps he was reminding us of the power of words, and of those who can put them together. Writing the powerful speech, as well as being able to deliver it, really is an art form. There’s an old saying that when Demosthenes spoke men applauded his courage, but when Cicero spoke, men said “let us march.” Pretty words can still make men march, but likely as not they’ll arrive at their destination (if there is one) wondering what it was all about. Pretty speakers can give pretty speeches that move the masses to tears, but an examination often shows little more than a vapid collection of phrases strung together, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

William Safire died Sunday of cancer. Fortunately, as is the case with many craftsmen, he left behind much for us to appreciate.

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