Over the weekend The Washington Post carried a charming article about a D.C. bookstore striking a deal with the estate of William Safire, the Nixon speechwriter turned Pulitzer-winning pundit, to sell his eclectic collection of books.
What makes that library special is not just that the books belonged to a well-known and well-connected writer known both for his insights on politics and his contagious fascination with the English language.
It is that many of the volumes were by Safire’s friends, colleagues or rivals. Many, of course, were inscribed by the authors. More impressive is that tucked within the pages of books by Richard Nixon, Colin Powell, Saul Bellow, Bob Woodward, David Mamet, Henry Kissinger and Russell Baker, among others, are personal notes and letters from each of those authors, making each a unique historical artifact.
I looked, not because I expected it to include a note in Herman Melville’s own hand, but because the only time I had the great pleasure to meet Safire — when he spoke at the Salt Lake City Library — my wife asked Safire what his favorite book was. (My wife has always been a better reporter than I am.) He said it was “Moby-Dick.”
Each of us admitted, contra Leonard Zelig, but still somewhat sheepishly, that neither of us had ever read it. Each of us expected to feel some scorn. But there was none.
“I envy you,” Safire said to us. “You still have that to look forward to.”
We still do.
We did buy a copy. We did see an opera version last year. It had its moments, though it didn’t motivate any of us to pick up the book.
And I do have some memory of the Mr. Magoo cartoon version I saw maybe 50 years ago. It was a pretty good introduction, and left a strong suggestion that actor Jim Backus had a lot more in him than Misters Magoo and Howell.
Anyway, Safire’s remark to us was a classy way for a famous writer to interact with a couple of yokels. And The Washington Post article was a reminder of a time when, at least in the fuzzy lens of history, a little class was not that unusual.
Safire was mistrusted by many in the Washington and New York Times establishment when he first joined the Times pundit corps because they expected him to be not just a rare conservative on the Op-Ed Page, but a loyal apologist for Nixon, Kissinger and that crowd.
He wasn’t. Maybe because he had become independent. Maybe because he soon found out that, while he was working in the White House, his bosses didn’t like him so they had him wiretapped.
But, even after that falling out, and even after Safire won his Pulitzer by hounding Jimmy Carter’s budget director, Bert Lance, out of office, the excavation of Safire’s books reveals respectful, if not altogether warm, letters and notes from Nixon, Kissinger and Lance.
The Post article expresses some surprise that such a high-profile member of the political class could continue to exchange niceties with some on the other side of the aisle or, maybe more of a surprise, those on whom he had turned his back. It may look really weird, reporter Michael S. Rosenwald wrote, “when read in the context of today’s grenade-style political combat.”
Of course, as Rosenwald knows, and Safire knew, bomb-throwing politics is nothing new in American history. Burr killed Hamilton. Adams and Jefferson were friends, enemies and then, when both were too old to matter, friends again. Lincoln was widely portrayed as an orangutan. Gentlemen then would literally come to blows on the floor of the Senate.
But it is also true that, from about World War II through, maybe, Bush vs. Gore, Washington was known as a place where people of seriously differing political views were commonly seen at one anothers’ receptions, book signings and, at least in stories such as “Advise and Consent,” in salons kept by other senators’ high-class mistresses.
And it is also more than possible that the American body politic turned against all that when people came to believe that such comity was good for the powerful but not for the rest of us. So much that, motivated by the slime found on social media and Fox News, just enough voters decided that William Safire’s Washington was not an officers’ club or a faculty lounge, but a swamp that needed to be drained.
By the biggest snake they could find.
Which makes a return to any kind of civil governance that much less likely, just when we may need it most.
I would love to hear what William Safire would have to say about the current chief executive. Only someone who knew as many words as he did might have the right ones.
Maybe something about a mad sea captain destroying his own ship.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, treasures an autographed copy of “William Safire’s Political Dictionary.” It is not for sale.