Where There's Smoke, There's Safire

WILLIAM SAFIRE'S MOTTO HAS ALWAYS BEEN "Kick 'em when they're up." Other journalists revere him as the best political columnist on earth, but they don't often follow that essential advice. Safire was clobbering Bobby Inman when the rest of the media industrial complex was slobbering over him. But that was a month ago. Today, everyone wants to dump on Inman. He's down.

So who's up, and ripe for a Safirean kicking? Well, Safire himself. The clumsiness of Inman's smear has made the columnist even more famous and feared. Not that he's in Lorena Bobbitt's league. Chicago columnist Mike Royko took an informal poll last week of 10 "reasonably well-educated" non-news-junkie Midwesterners. Six had no idea who Safire was; one thought he might be a fashion designer. As Stephen Hess of Brookings points out, no columnist is as powerful nowadays as Walter Lippmann in his prime. But within Washington, Safire comes close.

I don't relish becoming another of those puny punning pundit wannabes who stalk the mild-mannered millionaire maven still wearing Wallabees. (Sorry.) The pleasures of Safire's cleverness are too rarely found elsewhere. His digs--and digging--are too consistently delicious. But when even liberals love him for being an equal-opportunity destroyer, when even Bert Lance, the man whose hide Satire exchanged for a Pulitzer Prize, has become his friend, when his only vocal critics are language snobs with too much time on their hands who are scandalized by his defense of the word "hopefully"--then it's time to take a bite out of today's Big Enchilada (Watergate terminology, according to "Safire's Political Dictionary," first used to describe John Mitchell).

Unfortunately, the bill of particulars that Inman offered doesn't help. He has already withdrawn his phony charges that Safire was involved in plagiarism and that Bob Dole struck a deal with Safire to derail his nomination. His charge that Safire said to him ,that if I didn't become a source, I would regret it in subsequent coverage" is implausible. In Washington, such arrangements are implied, not stated, and thev usually take a more positive form--if you do become a source, I'll flatter you in print. This protection racket, which Inman exploited with other news organizations (including NEWSWEEK) in years past, might have worked for a time with Safire, too, though Safire is known as one of the rare journalists who have the guts to burn sources when it helps their readers.

Inman's most credible charge is that Safire lobbied CIA Director William Casey in the early 1980s to allow the Israelis access to sensitive U.S. intelligence. If true, this would be improper for any journalist, even a columnist who counted Casey as a close friend of more than 20 years. (Safire managed Casey's unsuccessful 1966 campaign for Congress.) Columnists should lobby in print, not private. But Safire told me last week that the story is false, another product of what he calls Inman's "perfervid imagination." In a choice between believing Inman or Safire, I believe Safire.

Still, isn't it fascinatin'--to quote another paranoid Texan--that when a public official spreads conspiracy theories involving a journalist, they are immediately dismissed as loony; but when a powerful columnist takes a roll on the grassy knoll, the only question is "Wow! I wonder if Safire will win another Pulitzer for this one?" NPR's Daniel Schorr suggests that there are two styles of Washington column "invective" and "investigative." Safire represents the highest form of both. The issue is whether his exquisite writing gifts sometimes camouflage the skimpiness of the reported goods beneath. By skillfully blurring fact and opinion, he can appear to be breaking stories when he's really just breaking new and influential innuendo.

I asked Safire if innuendo was in his repertoire, and if he would define it for me. He said he didn't use innuendo, and he defined the word as "a sly hint at what may or may not be the truth." Safire says that when he punches people, he punches them in the face--nothing sly about it.

Full Disclosure? (The title of Safire's first novel.) Not exactly. The former Nixon aide--who seems to believe that every White House is as corrupt as the one in which he served--was engaging in his own modified limited hangout. When he writes about the lack of fingerprints on Vincent Foster's torn-up suicide note, this is innuendo. It's a "sly hint" that White House aides "may or may not" have doctored the suicide note to delete any reference to Whitewater. When Safire wrote that Hillary Clinton's 1988 request for power of attorney over Whitewater "may soon come under the statute of limitations," it was both factually wrong and a "sly hint" that she had committed a crime in attempting to close down a failing company. What crime? No one can say.

Safire's secret is his energetic reporting, but some big players in Whitewater say he has never called them. If he had, he might have heard their convoluted but often convincing explanations. If he published that complexity, his column would have been more accurately ambivalent, thus more boring and less Safiery.

Even paranoids have real enemies, Henry Kissinger once said. And even innuendo can end up true. Safire might be right about Whitewater. His nose has been reliable in the past. Of course, if he's wrong, almost no one but NEXIS and the individuals he implicated will remember. The failure of a language columnist to use the most precise word to describe one of his weapons of political attack is not exactly Safiregate. But then, that suffix you popularized has become a cliche. Hasn't it, Bill?