On Tuesday, we called up a few liberal writers to get their take on former Times columnist William Safire, who died on Sunday at the age of 79. The consensus? Politically distasteful, but a first-rate sparring partner!
“He had a healthy respect for political give-and-take, he loved language and he was a worthy adversary for liberals,” said Eric Alterman, the writer and professor. “It’s because he took the ideas of the other side seriously. He wanted to win an argument, and he wanted to win it fairly.”
Mr. Safire was a Op-Ed columnist for 33 years before he settled into a quieter life writing solely about words and language in the pages of The New York Times Magazine. (He started that gig way back in 1979.) Though he certainly wasn’t shy about his strongly right-of-center views, particularly when it came to Bill Clinton, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war, Mr. Safire had a certain something that made him a good opponent.
“He took The Times seriously, which I don’t think many in the right-wing media do,” said Eric Boehlert, writer and senior fellow at Media Matters. “I don’t think his fact-checking was that great, but he did have a Times platform, and that Times platform meant something more to him.”
Mr. Boehlert was one of Safire’s critics. In a 2004 Salon article headlined “William Safire’s Dubious Legacy,” he wrote: “Safire has been wrong more times than you can count, yet the instances in which he has acknowledged his errors in print can probably be calculated on two hands. (He’s written well over 2,000 columns.)”
But five years later, with conservative yo-yos all over television, Mr. Boehlert concedes Mr. Safire was at least reasonable.
“The conservatives today—Glenn Beck, Limbaugh, Fox News—don’t have any adult supervision anymore, and Safire played an adult role while playing a partisan,” he said.
“He had a regime of argumentation that was smart,” said Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation.
“There was an intelligence to his columns, which defined him,” she continued. “He was certainly pugnacious in ways I disagreed with, but he would do things like take on Bush’s civil liberties, and he had this burst of contrarian spirit. It’s not visible enough these days in a lot of writing.”
No one seemed to like what he did to Bill Clinton, but you couldn’t help but respect what he did … at least a little.
“During the Clinton years and then during Bush’s first term, he was seen as one of the leading voices of the conservative movement, but today you have to sign off on the idea that Obama is a communist or a Nazi or a racist, and I can’t imagine he would have signed off on any of that,” said Mr. Boehlert.
“Sometimes the facts changed his opinions, which is pretty rare among opinion writers,” said Mr. Alterman. “Plus, he was a wonderful writer. He was a great role model for anyone taking writing seriously.”