[Paleopsych] Safire: A Columnist's Farewell
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Safire: A Columnist's Farewell (Op-Ed Quartet)
Op-Ed Columnist: 'Never Retire'
January 24, 2005
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
The Nobel laureate James Watson, who started a revolution
in science as co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, put it
to me straight a couple of years ago: "Never retire. Your
brain needs exercise or it will atrophy."
Why, then, am I bidding Op-Ed readers farewell today after
more than 3,000 columns? Nobody pushed me; at 75, I'm in
good shape, not afflicted with political ennui; and my
recent column about tsunami injustice and the Book of Job
drew the biggest mail response in 32 years of pounding out
Here's why I'm outta here: In an interview 50 years before,
the aging adman Bruce Barton told me something like
Watson's advice about the need to keep trying something
new, which I punched up into "When you're through changing,
you're through." He gladly adopted the aphorism, which I've
been attributing to him ever since.
Combine those two bits of counsel - never retire, but plan
to change your career to keep your synapses snapping - and
you can see the path I'm now taking. Readers, too, may want
to think about a longevity strategy.
We're all living longer. In the past century, life
expectancy for Americans has risen from 47 to 77. With
cures for cancer, heart disease and stroke on the way, with
genetic engineering, stem cell regeneration and organ
transplants a certainty, the boomer generation will be
averting illness, patching itself up and pushing well past
the biblical limits of "threescore and ten."
But to what purpose? If the body sticks around while the
brain wanders off, a longer lifetime becomes a burden on
self and society. Extending the life of the body gains most
meaning when we preserve the life of the mind.
That idea led a lifetime friend, David Mahoney, who headed
the Dana Foundation until his death in 2000, to join with
Jim Watson in forming the Dana Alliance for Brain
Initiatives. They roped me in, a dozen years ago, to help
enliven a moribund "decade of the brain." By encouraging
many of the most prestigious neuroscientists to get out of
the ivory tower and explain in plain words the potential of
brain science, they enlisted the growing public and private
support for research.
That became the program running quietly in the background
of my on-screen life as language maven, talking head,
novelist and twice-weekly vituperative right-wing
I had no pretensions about becoming a scientist (having
been graduated near the bottom of my class at the Bronx
High School of Science) but did launch a few publications
and a Web site - www.Dana.org - that opened some channels
among scientists, journalists and people seeking reliable
information about the exciting field.
Experience as a Times polemicist made it easier to wade
into the public controversies of science. Dana philanthropy
provides forums to debate neuroethics: Is it right to push
beyond treatment for mental illness to enhance the normal
brain? Should we level human height with growth hormones?
Is cloning ever morally sound? Does a drug-induced sense of
well-being undermine "real" happiness? Such food for
thought is now becoming my meat.
And what about what the cognition crowd calls "executive
transfer" in learning? Does an early grasp of the arts -
music, dance, drama, drawing - affect a child's ability to
apply that cognitive process to facility in math,
architecture, history? New imaging techniques and
much-needed longitudinal studies may provide answers rather
than anecdotes and affect arts budgets in schools.
So I told The Times's publisher two years ago that the 2004
presidential campaign would be my last hurrah as political
pundit, and that I would then take on the full-time
chairmanship of Dana. He expressed appropriate dismay at
losing the Op-Ed conservative but said it would be a
terrible idea to abandon the Sunday language column. That's
my scholarly recreation, so I agreed to continue. (Don't
use so as a conjunction!)
Starting next week, working in an operating and
grant-making foundation, I will have to retrain parts of my
brain. That may not make me a big man on hippocampus, but
it means less of the horizon-gazing that required me to
take positions on everything going on in the world;
instead, a welcome verticalism will drive me to dig more
deeply into specific areas of interest. Fewer lone-wolf
assertions; more collegial dealing. I hear that's tough.
But retraining and fresh stimulation are what all of us
should require in "the last of life, for which the first
was made." Athletes and dancers deal with the need to
retrain in their 30's, workers in their 40's, managers in
their 50's, politicians in their 60's, academics and media
biggies in their 70's. The trick is to start early in our
careers the stress-relieving avocation that we will need
later as a mind-exercising final vocation. We can quit a
job, but we quit fresh involvement at our mental peril.
In this inaugural winter of 2005, the government in
Washington is dividing with partisan zeal over the need or
the way to protect today's 20-somethings' Social Security
accounts in 2040. Sooner or later, we'll bite that bullet;
personal economic security is freedom from fear.
But how many of us are planning now for our social activity
accounts? Intellectual renewal is not a vast new government
program, and to secure continuing social interaction
deepens no deficit. By laying the basis for future
activities in the midst of current careers, we reject
stultifying retirement and seize the opportunity for an
exhilarating second wind.
Medical and genetic science will surely stretch our life
spans. Neuroscience will just as certainly make possible
the mental agility of the aging. Nobody should fail to
capitalize on the physical and mental gifts to come.
When you're through changing, learning, working to stay
involved - only then are you through. "Never retire."
Op-Ed Columnist: How to Read a Column
NYT January 24, 2005
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
At last I am at liberty to vouchsafe to you the dozen rules
in reading a political column.
1. Beware the pundit's device of using a quotation from a
liberal opposition figure to make a conservative case, and
vice versa. Righties love to quote John F. Kennedy on
life's unfairness; lefties love to quote Ronald Reagan.
Don't fall for gilding by association.
2. Never look for the story in the lede. Reporters are
required to put what's happened up top, but the practiced
pundit places a nugget of news, even a startling insight,
halfway down the column, directed at the politiscenti. When
pressed for time, the savvy reader starts there.
3. Do not be taken in by "insiderisms." Fledgling
columnists, eager to impress readers with their grasp of
journalistic jargon, are drawn to such arcane spellings as
"lede." Where they lede, do not follow.
4. When infuriated by an outrageous column, do not be
suckered into responding with an abusive e-mail. Pundits so
targeted thumb through these red-faced electronic missives
with delight, saying "Hah! Got to 'em."
5. Don't fall for the "snapper" device. To give an aimless
harangue the illusion of shapeliness, some of us begin
(forget "lede") with a historical allusion or revealing
anecdote, then wander around for 600 words before
concluding by harking back to an event or quotation in the
opening graph. This stylistic circularity gives the reader
a snappy sense of completion when the pundit has not
figured out his argument's conclusion.
6. Be wary of admissions of minor error. One vituperator
wrote recently that the Constitution's requirement for a
president to be "natural born" would have barred Alexander
Hamilton. Nitpickers pointed out that the Founders exempted
themselves. And there were 16, not 20, second inaugural
speeches. In piously making these corrections before
departing, the pundit gets credit for accuracy while
getting away with misjudgments too whopping to admit.
(Note: you are now halfway down the column. Start here.)
7. Watch for repayment of favors. Stewart Alsop jocularly
advised a novice columnist: "Never compromise your
journalistic integrity - except for a revealing anecdote."
Example: a Nixon speechwriter told columnists that the
president, at Camp David, boasted "I just shot 120," to
which Henry Kissinger said brightly "Your golf game is
improving, Mr. President," causing Nixon to growl "I was
bowling, Henry." After columnists gobbled that up, the
manipulative writer collected in the coin of friendlier
8. Cast aside any column about two subjects. It means the
pundit chickened out on the hard decision about what to
write about that day. When the two-topic writer strains to
tie together chalk and cheese, turn instead to a pudding
with a theme. (Three subjects, however, can give an essay
the stability of an oaken barstool. Two's a crowd, but
three's a gestalt.)
9. Cherchez la source. Ingest no column (or opinionated
reporting labeled "analysis") without asking: Cui bono? And
whenever you see the word "respected" in front of a name,
narrow your eyes. You have never read "According to the
10. Resist swaydo-intellectual writing. Only the hifalutin
trap themselves into "whomever" and only the tort bar uses
the Latin for "who benefits?" Columnists who show off
should surely shove off. (And avoid all asinine
11. Do not be suckered by the unexpected. Pundits sometimes
slip a knuckleball into their series of curveballs: for
variety's sake, they turn on comrades in ideological arms,
inducing apostasy-admirers to gush "Ooh, that's so
unpredictable." Such pushmi-pullyu advocacy is permissible
for Clintonian liberals or libertarian conservatives but is
too often the mark of the too-cute contrarian.
12. Scorn personal exchanges between columnists. Observers
presuming to be participants in debate remove the reader
from the reality of controversy; theirs is merely a photo
of a painting of a statue, or a towel-throwing contest
between fight managers. Insist on columns taking on only
the truly powerful, and then only kicking 'em when they're
In bidding Catullus's ave atque vale to readers of this
progenitor of all op-ed pages (see rule 10), is it fair for
one who has enjoyed its freedom for three decades to spill
its secrets? Of course it's unfair to reveal the Code. But
punditry is as vibrant as political life itself, and as
J.F.K. said, "life is unfair." (Rules 1 and 5.)
Op-Ed Columnist: Win Some, Lose Some
NYT January 24, 2005
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
Here's how some of my journalistic crusades turned out:
Winner: Baltic freedom. My most provocative dateline in the
80's put the story ahead of the lede: "Riga,
Soviet-occupied Latvia." Because the U.S. never recognized
the Hitler-Stalin pact, in 1991 we encouraged the Baltic
"captive nations" to become the wedge that began the
breakup of the Soviet Union. Al Gore and Strobe Talbott
later backed up that breakaway by proposing NATO expansion,
despite Moscow's protests - the good deed of Clinton
Loser: State-sponsored gambling. For years I railed against
the deceptive and regressive taxation and
something-for-nothing morality perpetrated by state
lotteries, as well as the state deals with sometimes phony
Indian tribal leaders to victimize the gullible in glitzy
casinos. But gambling, euphemized as "gaming," is booming,
enriching the sleazy while preying on the addicted and
corrupting slots-happy governors.
Winner: Israel's security. Some of us backed Ariel Sharon
and Israeli realists for a generation, while State
Department "evenhandedness" was all thumbs in failing to
come to grips with Arafat's aim of conquest. In the future,
if Palestinians confront their terrorist minority and get
realistic about borders, Israel will relocate some of its
settlers, forcibly if necessary, to secure the peace
Loser: Media competition. Merger mania and antitrust wimps
have allowed a dangerous giantism to bestride the worlds of
media, energy and finance. Our voices calling for
competition in the massive-media wilderness go unheeded;
only some monopoly scandal or derivatives-driven collapse
will awaken the public to the need to "break up the
Winner: Kurdish autonomy. Kurds say "the Kurds have no
friends," but their legendary chieftain, Mustafa
al-Barzani, was my friend. His oft-betrayed people, who
suffered poison-gas attacks under Saddam, have built a
safe, prosperous democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan, an
inspiration to Iraqis and Muslims around the world.
(Shortchanged Kurds tipped me to the U.N. oil-for-food
scandal.) Although I underestimated the staying power of
terrorists and Baathists, I believe Kurds will be part of
the Iraqi majority that will rule, and history will judge
our blow for freedom to be a winner.
Loser: Privacy. Civil libertarians were fighting the good
fight against computer stalkers; insurance, medical and
banking intruders; and government snoops who wanted to
merge F.B.I. files with credit-card tracking. But after
9/11 and the terrorist threat, plain fear overrode concerns
about freedom from surveillance by ubiquitous cameras,
digital recorders and computer cookies. Because politicians
don't want to appear "soft on security," personal privacy
is on the ropes.
Winner: My good fortune. I was propelled to this point by
three remarkable bosses: the columnist Tex McCrary, tough
but fair taskmaster ("nobody ever drowned in his own
sweat"); the unforgettable Richard Nixon, who gave me the
chance to participate in history, observe great moments and
learn from great mistakes; and the courageous publisher
Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, who in 1973 said he wanted
"another point of view" on this page, and who stuck loyally
with me when he got it.
Op-Ed Columnist: First Lady Follies
January 24, 2005
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
My relationships with first ladies were varied. Pat Nixon
was a pal; we were both volunteers during her husband's
first comeback in the 60's, sometimes working at adjoining
desks in the Nixon, Mudge law offices. She answered the
phone as the receptionist "Pat Ryan," her maiden name, and
assured political callers she knew Mr. Nixon well enough to
get through to him with a complete message. Her daughter
Julie inherited that cheery sang-froid: "My father does not
get angry, or blow up, or anything like you read about
him," Julie Eisenhower would insist. "Of course, there was
the time when Mother dropped the bowling ball on his toe.
Barbara Bush was the warmest politician among the first
ladies. Her husband consigned me to a deep freeze after he
urged Ukraine to stick with Moscow and I labeled his gaffe
"Chicken Kiev," but on social occasions ever since, Barb
would toss me an understanding wave and wink as Bush 41
grimly stared straight ahead.
My first-lady difficulties began with Nancy Reagan. She was
discovered to be taking free dresses for six years from the
nation's most expensive designers in exchange for the
publicity she gave them, and at first falsely claimed they
were purchases. I beat a spoon on my highchair about this
ethical breach, which put me in the Oval Office doghouse.
Later, when I criticized her for abusing unelected power by
giving the bum's rush to White House Chief of Staff Don
Regan, President Reagan gallantly blasted any columnist who
would dare to chastise "another man's wife."
Then came Hillary Clinton. In citing three examples that I
thought showed habitual mendacity through 15 years of
commodities trading, Travelgate and Whitewater, I concluded
with feigned sadness that our talented first lady, a role
model to many, was also a "congenital liar." Gallant
husband Bill Clinton had his spokesman say "the president,
if he were not the president, would have delivered a more
forceful response to that - on the bridge of Mr. Safire's
Hundreds of requests came in for ringside seats to witness
the presidential punch on my proboscis. Tim Russert
presented me with a pair of large red boxing gloves on
"Meet the Press." Pat Oliphant drew a cartoon showing
"Crusher Clinton" in the ring with "Slugger Safire" and a
referee holding us apart, saying "Boys, boys," and a
spectator shouting "Gummint doesn't get any better than
this!" President Clinton's reaction had made me the envy of
The teapot tempest was tempered by the humorist Mark
Russell. He explained that what I had written was not
"congenital liar" but "congenial lawyer" and that the
innocent phrase must have been garbled in transmission.
This fanciful excuse cooled everybody off.
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