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An Interview With
William Safire

November 11, 2007




During the Nixon years, William Safire served the President as one of his principal speechwriters.  He joined The New York Times in 1973 and became one of the most celebrated opinionated columnists of our time. In addition, for over twenty-five years he has contributed to The New York Times Magazine column “On Language.”  Mr. Safire is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on linguistics and writing. For his contributions to journalism, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.

 

Spencer:

It is one thing to win the Pulitzer prize and quite another to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You have both. How did you feel when in 2006 you learned you would receive our nation’s highest civilian award?

Mr. Safire:

Well, my reaction was a literate one when I got the call and I said, “Wow.”

Spencer:

Some have described you as the most respected opinionated reporter of our time. You have been quoted as saying, “A columnist should play a hunch now and then, taking readers beyond the published news.” Isn’t that risky?

Mr. Safire:

Well, it depends on what the role of the journalist is. I saw a new angle that could be used in journalism that had been largely divided into opinion columns, signed, and left or right, and straight reporting. But I had come out of the tradition of the crosser of the street.

 

I had been a politician and a speechwriter and then a columnist and, to tell you the truth, in the beginning, 35 years ago, I was just writing my opinion. One of the Times’ editors said to me, “You know you have good contacts in the White House. That’s one of the reasons we hired you. Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you did a little reporting while you’re at it?” That started me on the trail of opinionated reporting, clearly labeled as such.

 

Everybody knew I was a former Nixon speechwriter. I was rootin’ tootin’ Republican and a conservative, a libertarian conservative, and so I wasn’t hiding anything. At the same time, I followed the advice of Stuart Alsop who was my idea of a great columnist. He said, “Never compromise your integrity--except for a good anecdote.” He was kidding, of course.

 

But what I was trying to do was to mix into my commentary, my opinion, some little tidbit of news, and I didn’t put it in the lede, which is one of the rules of journalism, put the story in the lede.

 

In writing a column, you bury the story. You don’t put in the lede. You stick it in the middle somewhere or use it as a snapper at the end to give the reader a challenge to check the whole column out and not just read the beginning and the end.

Spencer:

You gave the commencement address at Syracuse University in 1978. At that time you said, “We, as a people, are writing less and talking more.” You praised writing by saying, “It is harder to put your foot in your mouth when you have a pen in your hand.” Almost 30 years later, has your view changed? Haven’t computers helped us write more and talk less?

Mr. Safire:

You can put your foot in your mouth with a computer very easily, and as a matter of fact, the inclination when writing on a computer, when writing a blog, is not to edit, but just to write and send. So you see a lot of fresh drafts flying around on the web. It ’s honest but it is unfortunate because editing is a great thing. And when you write anything, write it twice. You know, go back over it and fix it.

 

I saw a wonderful example of that in one of the great Lincoln speeches where he took a suggested peroration to his first inaugural from Frederick Stewart, who was his rival and who became Secretary of State. He recommended that the President say something about the guardian angels of our nation. And Lincoln took it and used the idea and turned it around a little bit by talking about the better angels of our nature, which of course went to the more idealistic point of view, less warlike.

 

Yes, we’re doing more talking now and less writing. And the impact of the computer, well, if you want to ask me about that, we can go into that.

Spencer:

Sure. What is the impact of the computer?

Mr. Safire:

Sloppy writing, misspelling, and impulsive ideas. Now, of course that is not all computer writing. I like some of the funny stuff that flies around and like the little code initials. If you are sitting there, and your father comes into your room and stands behind you and looks at what you are writing, and you’re writing to a friend, you just type in “POS” and that is a signal that is universally understood among young people as “parent over shoulder”.

Spencer:

I never heard that before.

Mr. Safire:

Really. I have a lot of correspondents who are of your age who use that all the time.

Spencer:

Many believe you are the most widely-read expert on the use of the English language. You continue to write for the column, On Language, which appears weekly in the New York Times magazine. Your influence on students of language has been incalculable. You have also been a petrologic defender of civil liberties. You have expressed your opinion with articulable, perhaps articulatable facts.

Mr. Safire:

You’ve been reading my column.

Spencer:

Has your opinion relating to civil liberties changed in the post-911 world?

Mr. Safire:

Everybody has to weigh the needs of national security against the ideal of civil liberty. Security versus liberty is something that always has to strike a balance, and in wartime the balance always leans towards security and at the end of the war there is a reversion to great civil liberty.

 

Now, I had written a lot about Lincoln and he closed newspapers and he suspended habeas corpus, and he did a lot of things that in 1866 the U.S. Supreme Court turned around and said, “No, you cannot close the – you cannot suspend habeas corpus where the civil courts can meet. You can’t have martial law in America unless in case of an invasion and there are no civil courts available.”

 

So he was criticized afterwards. But when you put yourself in his shoes at the time, you can make a case that he had to crack down. Now, in retrospect, you always say he didn’t have to crack down that much, and that’s what’s going on right now.

 

The question of torture is, in principle, it’s wrong and in terms of human rights, it’s wrong. But when you have the ticking time bomb problem where if a terrorist has the information that a nuclear weapon is going to explode somewhere in a major city, and you’ve got to get that information out of him and save hundreds of thousands of lives, where does the decision fall? It’s an unanswerable question.

 

So civil libertarians say you don’t go overboard on suspending civil liberties because those are the values that we are defending. But at the same time you have to be a little more aggressive and harsh than you would be in peacetime.

Spencer:

You were a respected speechwriter for President Nixon. I believe you met when he was serving as Vice-president. At the height of the Cold War in 1959, the Vice-president met with then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in what was known as the famous Kitchen Debate. What was your role and why was the debate important?

Mr. Safire:

I was press agent, public relations counsel,, for the company that built the typical American kitchen at the U.S. Exhibition in Moscow. It was in my client’s interest that attention would be focused on that exhibit in the grand exhibition. That was my role, to try and get the two men, Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon, into my client’s kitchen. What I did was a little crowd control and I spilled the crowd into the house, trapping the two men in the house. They held their debate in the kitchen. I took the picture that hit a lot of the front pages around the country and made my client very happy.

 

The significance to me was I met Richard Nixon for the first time. He said as he was leaving the kitchen, “We really put your kitchen on the map. Why don’t you come around to the Embassy tonight and we’ll talk?” That is when I agreed to go on his 1960 campaign.

Spencer:

When Nixon became President you became his speechwriter. I would be interested to know how much collaboration took place between you and the President and what was the process?

Mr. Safire:

There were three senior speechwriters, Pat Buchanan, Ray Price and me. Buchanan was the hard right conservative. Ray Price was the moderate to liberal Republican and I was the centrist. Whenever he was doing a speech that called for a hard line he would turn to Pat and when he was looking for an uplifting human rights speech he went to another speechwriter, Ray Price; and when it was something in the middle or when he wanted to modify a speech draft of left or right, he turned to me. And also on economic affairs, that was what I specialized in at the time.

 

After you have been working for somebody for a couple of years, you know how he thinks. You know what his positions are. When you get a speech assignment, you draft a speech based on what he said before and what you know from interviews and listening to him, what his opinions are. You go into him and say, “You are going to speak in Pittsburgh next week and here is a draft of what I think you might want to say.” The first reaction of all Presidents is, “Who set up this speech anyway? You know I lost Pittsburgh in the election and I don’t want to do this speech.” Then you let him sound off about that, and then he will look at what you have done and say, “You missed a point. What I want to say is that.”

 

He will take your draft and scrap half of it and tell you what he wants to say based on what you have given him. Then you do another draft. You send it around to the State Department and the National Security Council if it is a foreign affairs speech or to the Bureau of the Budget if it is a domestic affairs speech or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court if it has to do with law. They will make suggestions. You then give it back to him, a new draft and he will at that point start writing on it.

 

I have a few drafts on the wall there, where you see his writing and changing and all that. After eight or nine drafts you have his speech.

 

Now, whose speech is it? It’s not the speechwriter’s speech. It’s the speaker’s speech. That is the way they are done.

Spencer:

Is that the same today, is the process relatively the same?

Mr. Safire:

Yes. There is an organization called the Judson Welliver Society of former White House speechwriters. We meet every other year, and I am the foundering president. Not the founding president, the foundering president. We tell each other stories about how these speeches are written and who coined what phrase, and we have a nice camaraderie left and right, Republican and Democrat.

Spencer:

How about Kennedy’s line, “Ask you not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?”

Mr. Safire:

Well, Ted Sorenson is one of the revered members of the group and if asked, “Did you create that line?” he will say that that was the President’s line and I remember it well. We all do that. To this day I have no idea if it was a Kennedy inspired line or if it was a Sorenson line because he has that passion for anonymity that is the hallmark of great speechwriters.

Spencer:

Isn’t there collaboration on all presidential speeches?

Mr. Safire:

Well, once in a while a president will do an ad lib speech. The best speech Bill Clinton ever made was ad lib to a minister’s conference in a southern – I think it was a Baptist church. He had a speech and he set it aside and he proceeded to talk from the heart. He was great. I mean, it was a hell of a speech. But, as I said, that was his best speech, and he didn’t do that too often.

Spencer:

What advice would you give to a young and inexperienced presidential speechwriter?

Mr. Safire:

Go get some experience first before writing for the president.

Spencer:

How do you think history should remember President Nixon?

Mr. Safire:

I think in a complex way. He was certainly the most complex president we ever had. You have to look at Nixon as you would look at a seven-layer cake. The trouble most of us have is that we nibble along one layer. One layer is Nixon the meany, the hardliner, the tough guy. Another layer is Nixon easy to work with for with the people close to him. Then there is another layer of Nixon the loyalist who sticks by people, perhaps too long sometimes. Then there is Nixon the hater. I mean he really despised the people who hated him, and ultimately he realized that is what got him.

 

Now, when you ask how will Nixon be remembered? I tried in my book about him, Before the Fall, that I wrote right after I left the White House, to show all seven layers of that cake, and to say “You got to cut down on that layer cake with your fork and you will see all the different Nixons that there are.” Only in that way can you get some idea of the complexity of the man and the good and the bad.

Spencer:

Not just across.

Mr. Safire:

No nibbling along one layer.

Spencer:

That is really a great analogy.

Mr. Safire:

I work a lot in metaphors.

Spencer:

There is often been a love-hate relationship between a president and the press. Is this because the press has always been a check and balance on the government?

Mr. Safire:

Essentially the press is adversarial and that dates to the early days in the formation of our constitution. Nobody was vilified more than Jefferson except possibly John Adams who was also hit from the other side by some newspaper men who were on the payroll of Jefferson.

 

As for the vilification that we frown on today: all responsible people pull their chins and say, “There is much too much partisanship shown in newspapers,” is as nothing compared to the partisanship you saw in the days of that founding of the republic.

 

I wrote a book about that, a novel called Scandalmonger, and I used fiction to show how what was really happening in those days and how important it was to avoid the chilling affect of a government’s attempt to suppress the press.

Spencer:

You now serve as the chairman of the Dana Foundation. Can you explain the mission of the Foundation and describe a few your initiatives?

Mr. Safire:

The Dana Foundation is primarily concerned with brain science research, neuroscience. But in the 90’s we got started there because there was the "decade of the brain." It was announced by I guess President Bush and carried on by President Clinton, and it was going nowhere. People were more interested in cancer research and in AID’s research and all the other diseases and not concerned as much the brain.

 

My best friend David Mahoney, a great marketing man, got together with several leading scientists and said what you need is somebody to get the scientists of the brain out of the ivory tower and onto television and writing books and articles so that they can explain what they are doing because the discovery of the workings of the human brain is just beginning.

 

So they formed this alliance of about 150 of the leading brain scientists in the country, and then a year later the European Dana Alliance, including about 20 Nobel laureates. Little by little they began to explain what they were doing.

 

It is a medium-sized foundation. So we are both a supporter of scientific research directly, and also we sell the idea of brain science and neuroscience as a good field to get into. It is worth studying in medical school. People who are in this field deserve the kind of respect that they really should be getting. That is the primary thing that we are doing.

 

We also do work in supporting immunological research and the importance of vaccines.

 

And finally, the third element of what we do has to do with the teaching of performing arts in public schools, because the brain scientists tell us that it helps. It helps develop the brain to be a musician or a dramatist or a dancer and especially when you begin at three or four or five years old. So there is a connection there between our help to schools and our help to scientists.

Spencer:

How about listening to Mozart and young children?

Mr. Safire:

That "Mozart effect" threw a lot of people because it was heavily touted and didn’t hold up. Listening to Mozart doesn’t hurt but there was no basis for thinking it affected a baby's brain. However, there are correlations and other related questions. If you are learn to dance, does it have an impact on your ability to conduct spatial relations? If you are trained in music, does it help with geometry? We’ve got about six universities working with us to explore these questions.

Spencer:

Earlier this year the Dana Foundation sponsored a symposium on the narrow ethics of brain enhancement. I am surprised to learn that the studies show that between 7% and 25% of college students are using enhancing drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall, and Provigil. I would be interested in your opinion.

Mr. Safire:

Well, taking a simple case, taking steroids before a race is considered unethical because it gives some people an advantage that they would not have over people who were training without drug enhancement. Now, you take that and you move one step over, if there is a memory pill that is developed and it was expensive, would it be right to let rich kids pop memory pills before an exam and poor kids not have that advantage? Most people would say no. You have to have it be the same for everybody.

 

But going beyond that, is it a good idea to have drugs help you do hard work and concentrate? There is an ethical problem there.

 

Now, kids cram before exams and I don’t know if you have ever pulled an all-nighter but you would be sipping coffee. And in that coffee is caffeine. Now, that is using a drug to stay alert so that you can get some information. That is the beginning of the slippery slope that goes to memory pills and other forms of mental enhancement.

 

The ethical question is not the use of brain science to cure or treat diseases. Nobody says that’s anything to do with unethical but the use of brain science to enhance the brain can be ethical and it could be unethical. That’s the beginning of the argument.

 

When nuclear energy was first being talked about 70-80 years ago, the scientists, the physicists did not consider the fallout, the ethical concerns of nuclear power. Well, this generation of scientists is very much interested in the powers that will come to the human brain and who can manipulate them or invade the privacy of it. The best thing now is that all the top scientists are very active as ethicists. That’s what Dana helps develop. We print their books. We have forums, or fora if you like that plural, and we help get the debate started.

Spencer:

In school we read William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Marc Antony’s speech following Caesar’s death was included in your book of great speeches in history titled, Lend Me Your Ears.

 

Two questions: Why did you choose Lend Me Your Ears for the title of your book and can you explain why Antony used the word “honorable” to describe Brutus?

Mr. Safire:

Well, it was either "Friends, Romans and Countrymen" or "Lend Me Your Ears," and I thought "Lend Me Your Ears" had a better ring. It was more subtle.

 

But now the use of "honorable," that is the use of sarcasm. Sarcasm is a potent weapon in this speech. In this case Shakespeare felt he could take the speech of Marc Antony and to use it to whip up the crowd and to get them to hate the assassins of Caesar. Sometimes you can use derision, you can use anger, but sarcasm has a knife edge to it and that is what he was doing there.

Spencer:

In the same book, you include President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. How is his speech relevant today?

Mr. Safire:

The Gettysburg Address, it has 271 words, and is about as eloquent as the, I guess comparable to the Sermon on the Mount because it takes a theme of birth, death and resurrection. He talks about a nation "conceived in liberty," so he is talking about conception there. And "brought forth upon this nation," that is birth, too. And then he talks about "the brave men, living and dead, who died there." So there is the presence of death at a cemetery.

 

But then he talks about "a new birth of freedom" and so there is the rebirth. In those 271 words he was giving the idea of the resurrection of a union and that is what that thematic unity plus the elegant words is what made it a great speech.

Spencer:

I believe he wrote the speech himself.

Mr. Safire:

Yeah. I don’t know about the back of the envelope. That’s I think a legend. But certainly he worked on that speech and honed it and he was the best speechwriter certainly of any president. Among the founders,James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were great speechwriters too. And Hamilton did Washington’s farewell address or drafted it. So I have a reverence for good speech writing by presidents and particularly good speech writing when they are not yet presidents.

Spencer:

One of your books, Words of Wisdom, is a compilation of quotes offering some very good advice. My favorite was one from Shakespeare. “Love all, trust a few. Do wrong to none.” What was your favorite?

Mr. Safire:

I just heard a old friend of mine who did a book of rules of what you should do when you are in the White House or in the high councils of the government and he recalled Harry Truman’s line, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Don Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, he came up with Rumsfeld’s corollary to Truman’s rule which was “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog but make sure it is a small dog because he could turn on you too.”

Spencer:

Politicians at times will use famous quotes from movies or poetry when trying to make a point. Is there one that you remember that you believe has special significance?

Mr. Safire:

Well, let’s see. Ronald Reagan took a line from Spencer Tracy in State of the Union where Tracy in this movie based on a play said, “I paid for this broadcast. You can’t shut me up.” And a generation later that was evidently rack – racking and rattling around in Reagan’s head. That is when he got up and said, “I paid for this microphone and I’m going to speak.” So you have reverberations from movies in the use of phrases in politics, just as Clint Eastwood with his “Go ahead and make my day” was used by George W. Bush.

Spencer:

Mine is, “Where we are going, we don’t need roads” and that was Ronald Reagan. It was from the movie Back to the Future.

Mr. Safire:

Oh really, I didn’t know that. Well you see, you live and learn.

Spencer:

During the Clinton administration you often had harsh words for Hillary Clinton. Has your opinion of her changed?

Mr. Safire:

I think she’s now coming under fire for being evasive and she is adept at being evasive. It takes a certain talent. It’s politic not to try to offend people and not to try to take a strong position when you are trying to reach as many voters as you can.

 

So I think what she is doing now is she is not running so much for the nomination; I think she feels she has the nomination. She is running for the presidency. And as a result, she is taking a centrist position or slightly left of center position and it may change when she gets into office.

Spencer:

How do you think the 2008 race will play out?

Mr. Safire:

I think there will be an election and there will be a president elected.

Spencer:

No one is going to say you are wrong about that.

Mr. Safire:

But that gives you an idea of how some people can evade a question.

Spencer:

Should she become our next president, how do you think she would do?

Mr. Safire:

Gee, your guess is as good as mine.

 

Ask me how do I think John McCain would do.

Spencer:

Okay. How do think John McCain would do?

Mr. Safire:

I think he could be a great president.

Spencer:

All right. Let’s ask why.

Mr. Safire:

He has suffered. He understands war and its terrors. He is also steeped in foreign affairs. He has a sense of humor and he has been through a lot. I’ve seen him talking to international leaders at a conference in Munich a few years ago. He was right in his urging a stronger force in Iraq right from the start, and certainly he was right on the surge, on the importance of it. He was playing against public opinion in this, and I like somebody who is willing to take a stand if it’s not too popular and recognizing that he would lose votes.

 

Now, he also took a stand on immigration which was neither amnesty nor a huge wall. That ultimately has to be the compromise but it is now considered the third rail of American politics, immigration. He’s a gutsy leader and he’s not the front runner by far, but we will see what happens. We have a long way to go.

Spencer:

During the Bush administration America has seen its image diminish around the world. What do we need to do to restore it?

Mr. Safire:

The public "opinion of mankind," a phrase that dates back a couple of hundred years, is important but it is not the only thing that is important. Standing up for what you consider the extension of freedom in the world and human rights in the world, is all important. Ultimately America will be judged on whether we did the right thing.

 

As far as the popularity of presidents or the popularity of administration is concerned, I remember how Harry Truman left office amidst what was called a "mess in Washington" and "government by crony," and he couldn’t end the war in Korea. He left with a Gallup rating of 23% which is lower than George Bush today and almost as low as Congress is held today. And yet now people say he was a near-great President.

 

So before assuming that what we read in the papers around the world is the voice of history, I think we ought to let history take its course and come back and judge what America is doing and what President Bush is doing now – ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.

Spencer:

In your book The Right Word, In the Right Place, At the Right Time, you say that the use of short words is an art so we shall close with a simple thank you and good night.

Mr. Safire:

Perfect.