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.