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Press Review December 13, 2001
 
Nabob Number One
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
 
 

Gigantic Asshole William Safire Takes Aim at Putin

The zinjanthropus of columnists

The zinjanthropus of columnists

I have always been fascinated by William Safire. In a world so well-peopled with sophisticated literary arch-villains like Michael Wines, Thomas Friedman and even Maureen Dowd, Safire lurks in the background as a sort of preternatural common ancestor-the zinjanthropus of Evil Columnists.

This is something you can sense almost on an unconscious level when you read his columns; the slope of the brow is just a little lower, the jaw slightly more pronounced, the back a little hairier than that of a pale biped like Wines. This is a creature that does not trade in the squirming deceptions and subtle manipulations of the modern human propagandist. No, he goes for the monstrous lie, naked and primordial, an attack of jaws rather than tools... It is not for nothing that this man was once Richard Nixon's chief domestic policy speechwriter. His style is a kind of relentless, uncompromising meanness, undiluted by anything like wit or personal magnetism. Whatever you may think about him, Rush Limbaugh has a sense of humor, and can actually be funny-he's a closet queen, after all-but there is no hidden human behind Safire's mask. Safire is his mask-and that what makes him so interesting.

This past week Safire went after Vladimir Putin. This was nothing new, of course. Like the old political operative that he is, Safire throughout his career has been careful to always feed the faithful-readers, voters, whatever -- a steady diet of attacks against a small list of Usual Suspects.

In the Nixon era, he and his chief concentrated on the press, the welfare cheats, and the anti-war crowd, in the process fostering a following of the "silent majority."

As a writer, he's stuck with liberals and whoever the foreign enemies of the United States happen to be at the time. In recent years his favorite targets have been the Clintons (he once famously called Hillary Clinton a "congenital liar"), the anti-globalist protesters, and... Russians.

Like his intellectual offspring, Thomas Friedman, Safire has a real hard-on for Russia. He writes about Russia far more than most syndicated columnists. This might have its roots in a Cold War/Nixon-era fixation on the Soviet enemy, or it might be because Bill Clinton was vulnerable on the issue of closeness with the corrupt Yeltsin regime... It's hard to say. But whatever Safire's motives are, his position vis a vis Russians is fairly clear: he doesn't trust them, and thinks that the first consideration in any dealings with them is how best to contain them.

To Safire's credit, he was never a Putin booster-never a Wines type who saw yuppie credentials in Putin's KGB past, or believed him to be a "closet reformer" who would bring shades of Pinochet- and de Gaulle-style order to the chaos of the Russian economy. No, Safire disliked Putin from the start, and vociferously so. And as time has progressed, his distaste for Putin has intensified, to the point where the vicious old codger even allows himself delicious lapses into angry incoherence. Here's an example from a column he wrote last July 18:

"Ever since the K.G.B. man emerged as the Russian oligarchs' choice, President Putin has shown himself to be duplicitous (ask the Chechens)... and untrustworthy (ask the exiled oligarchs)."

Duplicitious and untrustworthy? Good God, not both! Safire here sounds like Robert de Niro counselling the young Henry Hill in Goodfellas: "You learned the two most important lessons: never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut." This is beyond the fact that Safire is asking us to accept the Chechens and Boris Berezovsky as authorities in the area of honesty and trustworthiness... very strange stuff.


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