“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.
After Clinton’s re-election, when the GOP crashed in California, its situation looked better in the Future Just Perfect: “Kenneth Starr, having deferred to the election process in timing his indictments, will set out the crimes of Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate.” But after two more years of deferring to the election process, Starr finally admitted that he could set out no presidential crimes on Whitewater, Travelgate or Filegate.
In September 1997 Safire again went a-maying: “If by the first week in October Attorney General Janet Reno does not seek appointment of Independent Counsel, she may well be the first Cabinet member since William Belknap in 1876 to be impeached.” Today, back in the declarative, Belknap is still alone–unimpeachably so.
The approach of Clinton’s impeachment caused the conjugating columnist to storm into his form. In September 1998, urging Clinton to admit everything he was accused of, Safire foresaw a Clinton collapse and predicted, “Someday he may look back and say, ‘If I had only dared…'” It could be a long time before the May when Bill Clinton wishes he’d followed Safire’s impeachment strategy.
Facing the possibility of witnesses extending the impeachment trial toward the summer, Senate Republicans were daunted, but Safire revealed the future: “The public would soon put the blame for shutdown on the filibustering President.” In the past and present tenses, stretching out the process even until February was disastrous for the GOP.
Safire Conditional, like love, means never having to say you’re sorry–or unsuccessful. Even after the collapse of impeachment, he promised that at any moment “memoirs of disillusioned aides, toots from whistleblowers and straight reporting about an unraveling administration (and its I.R.S.)…may open some of the hatches that Ruff, Lindsey & Co. has so fiercely battened down.” As Safire might rephrase the X-Files motto: The truth may be out there.
Until that time comes, the columnist will continue dancing through the woulds, celebrating his personal may days. Just after the eclipse of Starr, Safire forecast a huge federal tax cut mostly for upper-income taxpayers–after all, “the top third pays most of the taxes and would use that money most productively”–despite public and Clinton Administration opposition: “What would Clinton do? My guess is that he would declare victory” and sign the Republican bill. This time, Safire was unconditionally wrong; almost before this would was stored in the barn, Republicans themselves dropped the idea.
In his twenty-six years on the Times‘s editorial page, Safire may even have gone through more mays than Willie. In his sweeping sentences, political vindication is always just around the corner–or the construction.
In Safire Conditional and the Future Just Perfect, he has devised a grammar for dark charges and darker predictions–light on the reality requirements of the declarative. It would seem churlish to suggest that Safire uses grammatical forms to bridge factual chasms, but it may be true.
Or, of course, it may not.