Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Thanks a Lot, William Safire

By Lars Trodson

Ann Coulter is running a series of columns titled "Liberal lies about national health care." On YouTube there is a video called "Dumb-ass John Kerry admits Barack Obama is a liar." A posting on asks: "Obama is a charming liar?"

I googled a two-word phrase "politicians liars" and came up with 10,200,000 responses. There were book titles such as "Big Fat Liars: How Politicians, Corporations, and the Media use Science and Statistics To Manipulate the Public" and of course Al Franken's book, "Lies, And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." (There is a website called David Corn of The Nation published a book called "The Lies of George W. Bush" in 2003.

Something faint was stirring in my memory. What I was thinking about was a column by William Safire that caused a bit of a stir years ago. I googled the phrase "William Safire congenital liar" and came up with what I was looking for. The column started out with this paragraph: "Americans of all political persuasions are coming to the sad realization that our First Lady -- a woman of undoubted talents who was a role model for many in her generation -- is a congenital liar."

He was talking about Hilary Clinton. The column, titled "Blizzard of Lies", was published Jan. 8, 1996. This caused a bit of a scandal at the time -- on his wikipedia page this column was said to have caused a "mild tempest."

However, I'm beginning to think this was a watershed event in political and social discourse. It made the accusation "liar" acceptable, and people have been having their sweet time with it ever since.

Prior to that, the word liar was used only in the most extreme circumstances -- and you had better be sure you were right if you used it. It was the strongest accusation you could make against anyone.

Before Jan. 8, 1996, politicians danced around the word. In political debates a candidate would be asked, in so many words, "Is your opponent lying about your record?" And the response was almost always something like, "Well, I don't think he has his facts straight" or a version of that. No one -- at least on the national level -- called anyone a liar.

Now, you could tell they wanted to use the word. And I may have even thought --- "don't beat around the bus -- call the guy a liar." It would have felt much more satisfying, and maybe closer to the truth.

You can imagine Safire coming to that very same conclusion as he began writing his column. He's a man of words: he could have called Clinton a prevaricator, cheat, con artist, deceiver, deluder, dissimulator, equivocator, fabler, fabricator, fabulist, false witness, falsifier, fibber, maligner, misleader, perjurer, phony, promoter, storyteller or trickster.

But, no.

Ahh, it must have felt good. It certainly gave Safire some juice. There was a public debate on whether Safire had crossed a line. President Clinton said if he hadn't been president he would have punched Safire in the nose. MediaMatters called the column "headline making."

So, as you listen and read your favorite pundits and thinkers and they accuse so-and-so of being a liar or a teller of lies, we can thank our learned friend, Mr. William Safire, a weaver of memorable and undeniably influential phrases.