William Safire’s Contribution to ‘Gestural Politics’

by on Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 9:28 am in Politics

David Bromwich’s latest column recounts:

1. Safire’s reshaping of American journalism:

He became the leading practitioner of the gestural politics of journalism. And in doing so, he revamped the accepted manner of the New York Times columnist. No more the formality and reserve and the magisterial airs of a James Reston; everything now had to be fast and sharp: keep the pot boiling and the gags popping. He was the first man of the right to leaven his moralism with jokes. With fun and “pace,” with plenty of euphemisms, and with calculated self-deprecation he did more than anyone else to legitimate a reactionary president, Ronald Reagan, as a new kind of centrist. A considerable sleight-of-hand.

2. Safire’s propensity to drool over violence and ruthless combativeness:

Perhaps the ruling passion of his life was a need for violent stimulants. He sought, and craved, excitement — the thrill of the battle of everyday politics, the thrill of the slander and smear, the thrill of wars. He was equally drawn to wars of the past, wars simmering at present, and wars in prospect for the future. This love of gross sensations Safire aimed to impose as much as possible on his readers. More important, he aimed to impose it on the men of power whom he wished to influence. And often enough he succeeded. Kenneth Starr, on the brink of quitting the Whitewater investigation, was rebuked by Safire in such humiliating terms that, rather than defy the columnist, he launched the country on the long march toward impeachment.

3. And those he admired most in life:

Among living politicians, he cultivated a particular admiration for Ariel Sharon. Has the oddness of this relationship ever been adequately noticed? A general who became the head-of-state of a foreign power, implicated in a brutal massacre, was puffed as a wise man by a popular American journalist. Safire sought to persuade Americans that the adventurer of the Lebanon War was our old friend “Arik.” His reports of phone conversations with Sharon, like the columns he devoted to the elevation of Sharon’s achievements, have no precedent in American journalism, not even in the high days of Anglophilia when Winston Churchill evoked sentimental feelings beyond any warrant from his conduct.

Is it any wonder William Safire became the quintessential main stream media pundit?


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