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William Safire: Knocking Them 'When They're Up'

August 31, 1987|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — William Safire, his voice uncommonly soft for a newspaper columnist, is talking about his former boss, President Richard Nixon. Except that not once, but twice, he calls him President Lincoln.

It's not hard to understand. Safire has spent his spare time the last nine years writing a novel about Lincoln. "Freedom," as the epic is called, is 1,125 pages that deal with Honest Abe during his not altogether honest first 20 months in the White House.

Still, listening to Safire in his New York Times office here, one senses that these slips of the tongue are not the result of some momentary confusion.

History has defined Lincoln as a wise President with a few understandable flaws. For Safire, there has always been a question why the President he wrote speeches for from 1969-73 is being judged as flawed, with a little accidental wisdom.

At Lincoln's point in time, the President's men did more than bug reporters' telephones. Lincoln arrested a war correspondent who, back from the front, gave a report to the President and then planned to write about how distraught and unhappy he had found the man in the Oval Office.

Break-in at the headquarters of the political opposition? About 100 years before Nixon's men were invading the Watergate, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus-- that hallowed protection against unlawful imprisonment. Thousands were locked up at one time or another for various degrees of suspected disloyalty to Lincoln's policies.

"I think that's criticiz-able," says Safire, an expert on language who would probably pounce on anybody else for using such a word. "Rarely does anybody criticize the President--President Lincoln--for his excesses, for cracking down on dissent and cracking down on the press."

But if Safire is criticizing him, he also decided somewhere in the long process of writing this book that Lincoln's unseemly means were more admirable than Nixon's in Watergate or even Ronald Reagan's in the Iran- contra scandal. And Lincoln had a purpose aimed at a more understandable end--the preservation of the Union.

"If he were running today, I'd vote for him," Safire says. "I think he had his priorities straight."

Straight priorities mean having a core of beliefs that are worth all the harassment and trouble that come with leadership. It is true for Presidents, and it has to be true for critics like William Lewis Safire. A registered Republican who defines himself as a Libertarian conservative, Safire at 57 has become the most thoughtful conservative essayist in the country.

His twice-a-week columns are often at the top of required reading for the politically attuned. Even people who hate his conclusions still love his column. His Sunday column on language generates more than 15,000 letters per year.

His speeches bring him $18,000 apiece. His recent books (this is the ninth) have hit the jackpot. And most of the people who had nothing but criticism when he was hired in 1973 as the token conservative on the Times Op-Ed page have decided that maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after all.

What has mostly surprised and delighted the non-believers has been Safire's tendency to take on the powerful, whether they be political foes or personal friends. His targets have included former Carter Administration budget director Bert Lance, Reagan friend Michael Deaver and the most powerful of all, Nancy Reagan.

The late CIA director William Casey was a longtime ally from the days when Safire worked for Nixon in 1960 and helped on Casey's unsuccessful congressional campaign in New York in 1966. And yet Safire had so angered Casey late last year that the two were barely speaking. When Casey got word that Safire was asking some tough questions about the Iran arms scandal, he called Safire three times at home. On a Sunday.

Safire recalls "pulling my punches" somewhat on Casey in his column the next day. Still, he wrote: "It struck more than one of his former friends that power and secrecy had corrupted Big Bill."

It was one of the few cases when his political friends felt that Safire came closest to breaking his primary rule for the column: "I believe in knocking somebody when they're up."

For those who are his friends, Safire's loyalty is legend. They sometimes cite his support of the late Roy Cohn, whom he befriended after he wrote a story about Cohn in 1949.

Cohn had been making enemies, and creating controversy, since the days of his association with Sen. Joseph McCarthy. What angered Safire was that Cohn was disbarred in New York shortly before he died of complications from AIDS.

In his columns he labeled the proceedings a "late hit" and a "ghoulish pursuit." His outrage brought a torrent of angry letters from people who believed Safire had distorted the facts to support a man unworthy of such a defense.

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