When William Safire stopped writing his biweekly politics column in 2005, he ended the nice Jewish equilibrium of The New York Times’ op-ed pages. For a golden moment there, four Times columnists seemed to embody the full spectrum of American-Jewish political and social thought.
Safire was a reliable defender of the Bush Mideast agenda and would report on his latest phone call with his good buddy “Arik” Sharon (even joking that his views on the Mideast were “a little more hawkish” than the prime minister’s).
David Brooks, Safire’s heir apparent, was then as now a different sort of conservative: a little less party driven, a little more willing to stand above the partisan fray. On the Left, you had Thomas Friedman and Frank Rich — Friedman a pragmatic dove on Israel, Rich waving the banner of liberalism in his defense of civil liberties and his attacks on anti-intellectualism.
I could imagine all four men at the family seder: Grandpa Bill, who subscribed to Commentary and disdained Democrats and Israeli “appeasers”; Uncle Tom, who graduated from Brandeis and spent a semester at Hebrew U., but was fed up with the Likud and the settlers; Uncle Frank, not a big fan of the ritual but loudly invoking “tikun olam”; and Cousin David, on board with grandpa’s fiscal conservatism and hawkish foreign policy, but not quite comfortable with the evangelicals and gun nuts in the GOP.
I could even imagine the conversation, although there was no need to: It pretty much played out every week in the pages of the Times. Safire might insist that peace will come to Israel only when “the Palestinian majority takes charge of its enemy within”; Friedman might counter that while Israel was cursed with a maddening and self-defeating enemy, both justice and its own security depended on its taking risks to secure a negotiated settlement.
Brooks would complain, as he did recently, that extremists on the Right were distracting reasonable conservatives from their true and even winnable agenda. Rich, meanwhile, would describe the latest homophobic ballot measure or Bible-thumping Culture Warrior as the inevitable product of a politics of “us and them.”
When Safire retired, the equilibrium was thrown off. Not that Safire “balanced” the Times op-ed pages, where before Brooks’ arrival he was usually the lone voice of conservatism. But as I wrote then, I read and appreciated Safire because I am a pluralist. A good newspaper is like a strong Jewish community: We have our factions, but that shouldn’t keep us from talking with and learning from one another. Even when I disagree with you, you might have something to teach me, even if the lesson only helps me to sharpen my arguments against you.
Safire wrote from the Jewish Right, certainly on Israel but also on domestic affairs. In general, his was the voice of (I’m generalizing now) the Orthodox, the pro-Israel PACs, the neocons, and the Mideast “media monitors.” These are Jews who tend to dismiss the Times news pages as “anti-Israel,” and prefer to get their Israel news from Fox or the New York Post. The Orthodox and the Jewish Republicans may be, as Safire once said of himself, “a political minority within an ethnic minority,” but they make up in influence, access, and intensity what they lack in numbers.
Without Safire’s regular voice on politics and Israel in the paper of record, the Jewish Right lost a valuable spokesperson. And while The Wall Street Journal will reliably blast the Obama administration as too weak on Iran, too hard on Israel, and generally soft on terrorism, it’s different when two contrasting opinions are literally on the same page.
Safire was also broad-minded, at least compared to the polarized cable news climate that exploded in the years since he retired. More than occasionally Safire would question his own party and fellow conservatives, and even take a swipe at Israel when he thought it was wrong. When his friend Sharon came to power, it gave Safire the confidence to support the kinds of peace overtures he might have dismissed under a Labor leader. Safire would often serve as a moderating influence on the Right. It’s the same kind of influence Friedman wields whenever he reminds the Jewish Left that Iran’s ruling regime “has never minded inflicting pain on its people” and that Hamas’ attacks on towns in southern Israel are destroying a two-state solution, “even more than Israel’s disastrous and reckless West Bank settlements.”
Nowadays, too many pundits put party loyalty above honesty; their goal is not to advance thinking on an issue but to crush the opposition. Compare Safire’s body of work to William Kristol’s mercifully brief stint as a Times columnist: When Kristol didn’t seem bored, he seemed too lazy to even rewrite whatever talking points had been circulating in the blogosphere.
In a letter to the Times responding to news of Safire’s death Sept. 27 at age 79, a Scotch Plains reader wrote: “While reading his work, I felt the intellectual pleasure of having my views challenged by a worthy opponent.”
That’s not a sentence you’re likely to hear again anytime soon.