A Voice in the Whirlwind

Twice weekly from the high altar of The New York Times's traditionally liberal op-ed page, conservative pundit William Safire delivers his contrarian views on the vagaries of Washington politics. Call him Ishmael, if you must, but don't call him Job. "I haven't suffered, as Job did," says Safire, who began his career as a speechwriter in the Nixon White House. "I've had the good life, nice surroundings and no one has taken anything away from me." Nonetheless, all his adult life Safire has been preoccupied with the figure of Job the Bible's righteous Gentile who called God to account when the Almighty decided to test the purity of his faith by stripping Job of his wealth, his children-and finally his health. Now, in this campaign season's most improbable political meditation, Safire has published _B_The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today's Politics_b_ (304 pages. Random House. $23), a sometimes wise and frequently witty demonstration of how Job's confrontation with Ultimate Authority can illuminate the power struggles in Washington and vice versa. Call it political midrash, but don't underestimate Safire's serious theological intent.

In Safire's close, personal reading of the Biblical text, Job is not the pillar of patience, as conventional piety portrays him. Rather, he is the irreverent, even blasphemous Blakean figure who demands that God explain himself or stand guilty of abusing his own authority. He is the righteous rebel who insists on his own moral integrity despite his friends' counsel that he fess up to unacknowledged sins. He is, in short, the original political contrarian, a fellow who, in another era, might just find work as a brave, truth-telling columnist. Seen against the background of the earlier books of the Bible, he is also the Scriptures' "sore thumb," as Safire puts it, who dares to question Yahweh's covenantal promise to reward the just and punish the wicked. Life, saith the pundit, just doesn't work out that way. Certainly not in Washington.

At first, Safire acknowledges, he didn't have much respect for Job-or for the God who, goaded into defending himself, roars out of a whirlwind the longest and most exquisite speech the Bible assigns to the Creator. Safire's initial dissatisfaction with Job was that, after the spectacular whirlwind speech, in which God overwhelms Job with his power and authority, the righteous Gentile caved in. "He didn't push his questions to God," Safire observes-as, say, an insistent White House reporter might. The columnist's dissatisfaction with God was prompted by the Almighty's refusal to address Job's legitimate complaint. Instead, God reminded Job that his ways are not man's ways-as some presidents are also wont to do.

But as Safire became absorbed in the text and its scholarly commentators, he says, "I was moved from skepticism to belief" Never mind the Scripture's "Hollywood ending," Safire advises, where God rewards Job's humble submission to an obviously higher power by restoring him to health and wealth and new progeny. (Like many Scripture scholars, Safire suspects that resolution of the plot was tacked on by pious Biblical editors to prove that God does indeed reward the virtuous in this life.) For Safire, the moral is that by sticking to his principles, Job forced Authority to show himself-and, for a brief moment, reveal something of his previously mysterious outlook. Central to that outlook, for Safire's political purposes, is God's insistence that he will not be mankind's moral enforcer. (Safire refuses, out of respect for the English language, to use the politically correct "humankind.") Instead, as Safire reads the text, God tells Job that on earth it is up to us to work out the rules of the game. And that's politics.

But the Book of Job, after all, isn't Aristotle's "Politics." Nonetheless, for Safire it is the part of sacred Scripture that provides what he calls "a bolstering effect" for his own sense of how governors and the governed ought to relate to each other. Although politics requires compromise, he writes, it also needs its Job-like dissidents who "refuse to accept injustice from any source." As one might expect, Safire cites the lonely witness of former Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly Shcharansky as exemplifying "the essence of the Jobanism" translated into politics.

For dissenters in democratic societies, Safire discovers in the Book of Job a rather different lesson. "Job shows that you don't have to be worshipful of authority," he says. But like a true conservative, "he also never lost faith in God." Translated into political terms, the principle is that dissenters ought not to allow disputes with authority to become challenges to the very legitimacy of governments to govern. For too many years, argues Safire, a Republican, "the Democrats gave the perception that they were a bunch of fringe groups who were challenging not just the political authorities but the political system itelf--what some readily dismissed as 'the Establishment'." As for the Republicans, Safire feels that Job's anger at his friends for abandoning him offers a lesson about loyalty. He admires those men, like himself, who have remained Nixon loyalists despite Watergate-and those Kennedy loyalists who remain steadfast keepers of the flame.

What Safire fails to appreciate is that, even in Washington, there is more to life than politics. Indeed, if it weren't for the scholars and rabbis who see much more than political meaning in the Bible, there would be no commentary on the Book of Job from which a pundit can draw his inspiration. God can be ignored and usually is. But he can neither be impeached nor voted out of office. That, as even Job understood, is real Authority.