“Politics and language,” explains the dust jacket on the latest edition of Safire’s New Political Dictionary, are “William Safire’s two great and abiding interests.” True, but too modest.
The New York Times‘s rightward columnist is not only a language authority but he’s grammatically creative in a way that goes far beyond his early inspirations as Spiro Agnew’s speechwriter. Safire may not go out on the campaign trail or travel abroad as much as some columnists, but no pundit spends more time in the conditional voice. In fact, the Language Maven has pioneered a new grammatical form–Safire Conditional.
In sentence diagrams, Safire Conditional–used in invoking possibilities that one badly wishes to happen–is located just to the right of the factual.
Recently, deriding Bill Clinton’s Kosovo policy as insufficiently explosive, the columnist was looking forward to the Ultimate Mayday: “One of these days, Slobo (and Saddam) may lay hands on a half-stolen Russian nuclear missile–and that’s the end of retribution.” In Safire’s language, even conflagration comes in the conditional.
Two vivid examples of Safire Conditional–in both the “may” and “would” substructures–can be seen in Safire’s legendary column of January 1996 calling Hillary Clinton “a congenital liar.” (Later, Safire reportedly claimed that he really meant “congenial” liar; if he did, the word would have been the only congenial thing in the column.)
Records, he reported, “indicate she may have conspired with Web Hubbell’s father-in-law to make a sham land deal that cost taxpayers $3 million.” Since then we’ve seen three more Januaries, but not this particular may.
Maybe Ken Starr just didn’t look hard enough.
Safire expanded, “Having been separately deposed by the independent counsel at least twice, the President and First Lady would be well advised to retain separate defense counsel.” Somehow, in the present indicative tense, the question never came up–the First Lady never needed counsel at all.
In Safire Semiotics, Clinton’s situation was always desperate. At the beginning of Whitewater, in March 1994, the columnist ventured into another form he favors, which might be called the Pantingly Predictive, or the Future Just Perfect: “Voters now bored by secondhand accounts will be transfixed by the sight of a new set of venal politicians, relentless questioners, corrupting contributors, candid couriers and squirming aides–instant celebrities in tomorrow’s political folklore.” Since then, we’ve seen the future, and it didn’t look like that. But the phrasing forecast Safire’s constant vision of Whitewater in the images of Watergate.