By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

William Safire, civil libertarian

William Safire

William Safire

Former New York Times columnist William Safire, who died on Sunday at 79, brought three great passions to his work: a love of the English language; a devotion to dogged reporting; and an abiding commitment to civil liberties.

It was that last quality that brought Safire, a conservative who’d worked as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, into frequent conflict with the Republican Party — though, as he was quick to point out, the Democrats have frequently been no prize when it comes to civil liberties, either.

I did a bit of digging this morning and came up with a few examples of Safire on civil liberties. Enjoy.

On George H.W. Bush’s campaign against Michael Dukakis:

George Bush, now that he’s ahead, is adopting a Flying Rose Garden strategy, ducking interviews. Worse, his campaign has been taking cheap shots at the American Civil Liberties Union, which leads me to believe he would extend the intrusive “lie-detector” mania to enshrine secrecy — the most offensive legacy of the Reagan Administration. (Sept. 12, 1988)

On the Reagan administration’s contempt for governmental openness:

The Freedom of Information Act is a blessing for those who value a check on Government snooping. Individuals can now find out what the F.B.I. file says about them. Even better, individuals can force the Federal bureaucracy to disgorge rulings made without public scrutiny, and documents more politically embarrassing than secret.

Mr. Reagan’s Attorney General evidently finds the Freedom of Information Act an annoyance. He has reversed the policy supporting F.O.I.A. followed by Carter Attorney General Griffin Bell, and now the Justice Department intends to help bureaucrats who wish to hide their dealings from taxpayers. (Mr. Bell is looking better every day.) (May 25, 1981)

On FBI Director Louis Freeh’s post-Oklahoma City plan to spy on suspected domestic terrorists:

I think the ever-popular Director Freeh — dutifully following the lead of President Clinton in politically exploiting the public’s rage at bombers — is proposing a bureaucratic subversion of our civil liberties….

To the applause of voters fearful of terrorism, the proactivists declare their intent to prevent crime. This would be followed by surveillance of suspect groups by new technology; the infiltration of political movements deemed radical or violence-prone; and the stretching of the guidelines put in place 20 years ago to restrain yesterday’s zealots. (May 8, 1995)

On an investigation of then-California congressman Gary Condit, thought by some to be involved in the disappearance of his intern Chanda Levy:

Now, in the spotlight of pitiless publicity, the police are overreacting in the other direction. Yesterday’s heavily covered search of Condit’s condo, at his invitation, was a stunt to show activity rather than a search for evidence. The “lie detector” test, requested by the Levy family, will be worse than a stunt — it is a civil-liberties abomination. Condit is “not a suspect,” the police keep saying, but even the unaccused have rights. (July 12, 2001)

On the difference between Democrats and Republicans:

Democratic liberals are fine on civil liberties, standing up against random drug and polygraph tests — but where are they when you need them to defend freedom in Central America? Republican conservatives are dandy at cutting Federal spending, but why do they think they can flutter me as a condition of employment or coerce my kid to pray in school? (April 16, 1987)

On the post-9/11 agenda of John Poindexter, convicted of criminal wrongdoing in the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s, who had emerged as a top adviser to then-president George W. Bush:

This ring-knocking master of deceit is back again with a plan even more scandalous than Iran-contra…. Poindexter is now realizing his 20-year dream: getting the “data-mining” power to snoop on every public and private act of every American.

Even the hastily passed U.S.A. Patriot Act, which widened the scope of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and weakened 15 privacy laws, raised requirements for the government to report secret eavesdropping to Congress and the courts. But Poindexter’s assault on individual privacy rides roughshod over such oversight. (Nov. 14, 2002)

With President Obama proving to be something of a disappointment on civil liberties and governmental openness, it’s a shame that Safire’s voice has been silenced.

Discover more from Media Nation

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.


Guild treasurer addresses Totten charges


A possible breakthrough for GlobalPost


  1. charles pierce

    Has Hillary Clinton been indicted yet?
    Good old Bill told me she would be.
    Irving Kristol has a seatmate on the bus to Hell.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Hey, Charlie — don’t be a nattering nabob of negativism!

  2. charles pierce

    I have to give the old bastard his due there — that’s an unforgettable phrase.

  3. Dunwich

    Disliked Sinatra so much he called his being awarded the Medal of Freedom, the biggest mistake of Reagan’s administration.

  4. CAvard

    Saffire’s language columns were amazing. I’ll give him credit for that. Other than that, his politics drove me crazy, especially this quote from November 20, 1984.

    ““I count myself among the minority who hail Arik Sharon for performing a great service in dispersing the PLO.”

  5. charles pierce

    And Mohammed Atta has still never been to Prague.

  6. I liked Safire’s writing but hated his television appearances on “Meet the Press” … I could never quite place what bothered me so but his points always rubbed me the wrong way. His “You Are a Suspect” column, which the last quote is from, was a real doozy.

    Interestingly, while we are thinking about Safire and Oklahoma City, the videos of the bombing site were finally released after a FOIA … but the all important footage just before the detonation is missing:

    A key quote from the story, which probably has Safire rolling right now: “Trentadue said he is seeking more tapes along with a variety of bombing-related documents from the FBI and the CIA. An FOIA request by Trentadue for 26 CIA documents was rejected in June. A letter from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which reviewed the documents, said their release ‘could cause grave damage to our national security.'”

  7. CAvard

    Charlie, mind clarifying?

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén