Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion columnist William Safire died Sunday at age 79.
The News Tribune carried his New York Times opinion column for many years (our online archives don’t go back far enough for me to figure out when we started running it, but it was before my time).
As the person who gives the columns a first read before they go in the paper, I occasionally interact with columnists if I have a question or a correction. I recall only one time having to e-mail Safire with a suggested correction. He promptly replied, graciously thanked me and quickly moved a correction to his column over the wire.
Here’s a memorable column of his that we ran in January 2005, shortly before he retired from writing his regular political opinion column.
Character defines people and nations
WASHINGTON – What’s the secret to long-run success?
For a person, it’s useful to have the smarts, look great, be lucky and exude charisma. All that is not enough.
For a political party, it helps to have good organization, articulate candidates and pollsters to discern a popular set of issues. Not enough.
For a nation, success can seem assured by natural resources, free enterprise, a culture of compassion and a free press. It can still go under.
For a person, a party and a nation, the element essential to success is character, a word that grew out of the Greek for “to mark, to engrave.”
We can see that mark on individuals under stress: Lincoln, taking on the bloody burden of conflict to uphold majority rule. Or engraved in the unknown brain scientists of today, who break beyond the necessary treatment of mental suffering to the artificial enhancement of the human mind – and debate in their own minds if and when it is ethical to “play God.”
Such men and women shape their character in life’s personal decisions, weighing the warmth of loyalty against the cool of independence. They choose careers to gain the power to do good, or to build and support family, or to fulfill artistic talents – but forge character in sacrifices made in choosing one path over another.
We also see the mark of character, or lack of it, in political parties. The Republican Party today is characterized by a mission to defeat terror while exporting freedom abroad, and a policy to restrain taxes while increasing social spending at home.
Such a sharply defined character has led to electoral success and control of the White House, the Congress, state legislatures and the Supreme Court. Though George W. Bush is not an overwhelmingly beloved leader, he won a clear majority because most swing voters felt he resolutely stood for what he believed in. Their votes for character had coattails.
The GOP personality will split in a couple of years, as all huge majorities do in America. Idealistic neocons will be challenged by plodding, pragmatic paleocons, who, by fuzzing the party’s present character, will someday lead it down the road to defeat.
If I were starting out in politics or its commentary today, I’d become a Democrat. That’s because the party now is six disconsolate characters in search of an author.
Adlai Stevenson called 1952 Republicans “out of patience, out of sorts and out of office.” That tight shoe now fits liberals, who have been drifting toward isolationism abroad and fiscal conservatism at home, which for Democrats is out of character. The spirit of Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson is needed to return the party to ideological consistency: interventionist at home and abroad.
Although opportunism is often cited as the opposite of character, not so in politics: This is the opportune time for the Democratic minority to take advantage of its bantamweight agility and “stand for something.”
What of a nation’s character – does it presage long-run success? In northern Iraq, the Kurdish “nation” is self-defended, democratic and prosperous, its success based on the fiercely independent nature of Muslim Kurds.
The British historian D.W. Brogan wrote 60 years ago that the unique achievement of Americans to form a continental nation – without sacrificing liberty or efficiency – led to the temper of the pioneer, the gambler and the booster: “the religion of economic and political optimism.”
History has shown that U.S. optimism has not been misplaced. But what of reports of global griping at America’s superpower arrogance – at our government’s triumphalism? Has our character been warped by victories in three world wars?
Call me a chauvinist unilateralist, but I believe America’s human and economic sacrifices for the advance of freedom abroad show our personal, political and national character to be stronger and better than ever. This moral advance will be more widely appreciated as an Islamic version of democracy takes root. (What’s triumphalism without a triumph?)
It is that growing strength of national character – more than our individual genius or political leadership or military power – that ensures the future success of America and brightens the light of liberty’s torch.