July 04, 2006

Coiner of the Classic "Nattering Nabobs" Phrase Says the Times Was Right

Lots of people have commented on what a wonderful job Dana Priest did on Sunday's Meet The Press in putting Bill Bennett, self-appointed moral arbiter, in his place. Yet, one thing I haven't seen written about was how Bill Safire, the guy who coined the phrase, "...nattering nabobs of negativity" to describe the Nixon attempt to intimidate the press, was quite upfront that the conservative attackdogs were wrong this time. (emphasis mine)

MS. MITCHELL: Bill, does the press have an obligation to print or not in this case? And were they giving away state secrets?

MR. SAFIRE: Look, I don’t speak for the Times. I’ve been in the Times for 30 years disagreeing with Times editorial policy right down the line. On this one, I think they did the right thing. Here we are on Independence Day weekend, 230 years ago, celebrating what was the resistance to a king who said “We’re going to hang you for treason.” And here we have a Long Island congressman, happens to be named King, who’s saying “treason” and “put these reporters in jail.” I think there’s a big fundamental thing going on here now, and across the board, of “get the press, get the media.” And, look, I used to write speeches for Spiro Agnew, I’m hip to this stuff, and, and I can say that it gives you a blip, it gives you a chance to get on the offensive against the, the darned media. But in the long view of history, it’s a big mistake.

Why do you think he might believe that? When Bill Bennett goes off on the press as criminal in writting about these programs, Safire tells him where the press gets its mandate.

MS. MITCHELL: Bill Safire, weigh in here.

MR. SAFIRE: Let me respond to what Bill, to the point he’s making, that who elected the media to determine what should be secret and what should not?

MS. MITCHELL: Which is the fundamental point.

MR. SAFIRE: Right. And the answer to that is, the founding fathers did. They came up with this Bill of Rights beyond which the constitutional convention would not move unless there were a First Amendment to challenge the government...


MR. SAFIRE: ...just as the American founding fathers challenged the British government. Now it’s not treasonable, it’s not even wrong for the press to say we’re going to find out what we can and we’ll act as a check and balance on the government. Sometimes we’ll make mistakes. Sometimes the government will mistake.

MR. BENNETT: Is it wrong for the government to go after the press when the press has gone too far?

MR. SAFIRE: Sometimes we—sometimes even the Supreme Court admits to making mistakes.

...MR. BENNETT: Well, we’re still talking about basic right and wrong here. And is there any question that people—I think I’m the only one here who signed a nondisclosure agreement when I was—when I was director of national drug control policy, maybe some of you have—it’s a pretty serious matter. People who signed those agreements in government have violated the law, they have violated their oath, they have done so by talking to Dana Priest, talking to Risen and talking to Lichtblau.

MS. MITCHELL: Let, let me...

MR. BENNETT: We need to get after those people, and one way to get after those people is to talk to the reporters who—with whom they spoke.

MR. SAFIRE: Oh, you’re saying “get after them.” That means threatening reporters, and threaten them with contempt and put them in jail.

MR. BENNETT: Absolutely, absolutely.

MR. SAFIRE: And that’s wrong.

Bill Safire has always been a conservative, but he truly does believe in and respect the Constitution. Unlike Bill Bennett who would give up everything in the Constitution in order to have his gang in charge without any opposition. So who would you say is acting like a patriot?

Update: As Barry notes in the comments, it might help to have some more context on the significance of Bill Safire in this discussion. William Safire coined this phrase for Nixon's Vice President, Spiro Agnew, when the Nixon administration went on the warpath against the press. Despite the claims by the Nixon White House that the press was exposing state secrets, the Court protected the right of the NY Times and the Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers and the right of the citizens of the United States to know what their government was doing. Furthermore the press was able to help show how Nixon and his administration was engaging in a criminal coverup which led directly to his impeachment and resignation. David Remnick has a great review of the Nixon affair here (via W&P). Here are Remnick's concluding thoughts:

In the era of the Pentagon Papers, a war-weary White House went to the courts to stifle the press. You begin to wonder if the Bush White House, in its urgent need to find scapegoats for the myriad disasters it has inflicted, is preparing to repeat a dismal and dismaying episode of the Nixon years.

So, the fact that Bill Safire is publicly stating that the press is right to publish the articles like the SWIFT banking issue, Dana's report on the secret prisons, torture, and rendition, and the NSA scandal shows that he understands and supports the role of the press in the Constitution. The press' role is to be a check on the power of the government so an informed citizenry can decide what is okay or not and so we can express our will to those who would represent us. These issues must be discussed publicly because this is our government, despite the fact that some would prefer that they could do all the deciding themselves.

Posted by Mary at July 4, 2006 04:43 PM | Media | Technorati links |

When Safire is right he's right, it's rare but not the first time. He may be a winger but he hasn't been drinking the kool-aide and has a low tolerance for nonsense even from the right.

Posted by: Ron Beasley at July 4, 2006 05:37 PM

Your wording might leave one unsure about the usage of the phrase, so please let me take the liberty (that's what it's all about, isn't it?) of clarifying: Mr Safire wrote "nattering nabobs of negativism" for Spiro Agnew, then Richard Nixon's vice president, to use to describe the press in an unsuccessful attempt to deprecate the media's anti-Nixon slant.

Of course, as we all know, it was so unsuccessful that Mr Agnew soon resigned amid charges of money laundering and tax evasion, and Mr Nixon resigned ten months later to avoid impeachment.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at July 4, 2006 06:15 PM


When I watched that clip I thought to myself, 'This is the first time I ever remember agreeing with what Bill Safire is saying!'

It was quite remakable to hear.

Posted by: snark at July 5, 2006 06:39 PM