Watchdog Blog

Barry Sussman: Safire Sure Could Do a Lot with Words

Posted at 2:42 pm, October 2nd, 2009
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During Watergate William Safire, then working for President Nixon, told the Washington Post’s editorial page editor that Nixon could handle all the attacks on himself but that the Post was hitting below the belt when it tied his appointments secretary, Dwight Chapin, to aspects of the scandal. Chapin was like a son to Nixon, Safire said.

Thus Safire, good with words, put the Post and the White House in a boxing match. Not only that, but “hitting below the belt” of course meant that the Post wasn’t fighting fairly. And saying Nixon regarded Chapin as a son evoked feelings of warmth and protectiveness on Nixon’s part, not widely known attributes of his, and youth and innocence on Chapin’s.

In these remarks there was no suggestion, not the hint of one, that the Post in Watergate was doing what the press is supposed to do, reporting and going after the news.

That was what Safire did well — cramming a lot of innuendo into a few words. An habitual innuendoer, one could say, if not a congenital one.

Chapin’s name in fact came into play when the Post uncovered the dirty trickster Donald Segretti in October 1972. Telephone records showed him, along with Watergate felon Howard Hunt, to be a main Segretti contact at the White House. Chapin also instructed Nixon’s private lawyer to put Segretti on a dirty tricks payroll.

These mildly negative thoughts came to mind after Safire’s death a few days ago. Given the rivulet of praise some columnists have offered, perhaps they help round out the portrait.

To round it out a little further, go to this remembrance by David Bromwich on “He never met a war he did not like,” Bromwich writes, and that’s only at the beginning.

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