Make no mistake about it. Former Nixon speechwriter and longtime New York Times columnist William Safire was a wingnut, albeit one with a magnificent ear for language. But as I reflect on Safire's career following his death on Sunday, his form of wingnuttery seems more like a precocity to occasionally write outlandish things in the face of little or no evidence compared to his peers today on the lunatic fringe who fulminate and flail from the deep end of the pool but can't swim.
In his final years on the op-ed page, Safire clung tenaciously to the notion that there were links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. The only evidence for that was an alleged meeting between Mohammed Atta (above), leader of the 9/11 hijackers, and Saddam's espionage chief in Prague, but that was more than enough for Safire to declare that an invasion of Iraq was just and overdue -- overdue because it didn't get underway until March 2003 after Safire had recycled the Atta story no fewer than eight times as he relentlessly banged his war drum.
Although the evidence that there was no link between the strongman and the terrorist group was overwhelming and even George Bush was to back away from the claim, Safire never acknowledged that he was wrong in the years before he was put out to pasture as an op-ed columnist in 2005.
I guess that's pretty tame stuff compared to today's wackos, including members of the Obama Birther School, which holds that the president is not an American citizen, was brainwashed at a Muslim madrassa, has secretly opened reeducation camps, is going to confiscate privately-owned guns, would convene death panels if his health-care reform plan passes, and so on and so forth.
There is one big difference between Safire and today's wackos: While he could be an apologist for the Bush administration, he was not a party man and was a ferocious defender of civil liberties. Wingnuts today, of course, embrace only the civil liberties they like such as being able to take an assault rifle to a town hall meeting and then shout down a speaker with whom they disagree because freedom of speech should only be for right-wing bloviators.
With the passing of someone of Safire's stature it is customary to say that he will be missed. While I do feel bad for his wife and children and his "On Language" columns on popular etymology in the New York Times Magazine were keepers, he dispensed an awful lot of bad advice that too many conservatives took to heart although he was right about never splitting infinitives.
Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press