William Safire delivered a didactic and often humorous speech, expounding on the theme of America's free press and its turbulent history before a crowd of nearly 800 at the Kennedy School of Government's ARCO Forum last night.
"Now this is a scholarly dissertation," the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist and former speechwriter for former president Richard M. Nixon told his audience. "But it's about scandal and sex, so stick with me."
In the course of his remarks as this year's Theodore H. White lecturer, Safire kept this promise.
Safire focused his remarks on two scandal-mongering reporters from George Washington's day.
Profiling William Cobbett and James Thomas Callender, who engaged in seditious journalism that targeted the Founding Fathers of the United States, Safire sought to show that scurrilous reporting is an ingrained American institution.
"A lip-smacking interest in the sex lives and private finances of our leaders is rooted deep in American history, part of the warping and woofing of our journalistic hounds," Safire said.
Safire then related this fact to the modern-day interaction between media and politics.
"We can be personally disloyal to our elected officials, just as they can double cross their political followers when they get to power," Safire said. "This has nothing to do with disloyalty to country."
A few of Safire's colleagues in the media, including former U.S. News and World Report writer Nicholas Daniloff and fellow New York Times editorialist Anthony J. Lewis '47, who is a former Crimson executive, were present at yesterday's address.
Safire responded to a quip from another veteran journalist, Shorenstein Center Director Marvin Kalb, who introduced him last night, with characteristic wit.
Safire remarked jokingly that he did not really call First Lady Hillary Clinton a "congenital liar," as Kalb had alleged, but a "congenial lawyer."
Later in the address, Safire's comment that "respectable journalism is an oxymoron" drew laughter among his peers.
Many students in attendance also said they enjoyed Safire's speech.
"I expected him to be a stiff, rightwing extremist," Aneesh V. Venkataraman '01 said. "He spoke to a crowd of old people but he was able to reach the young people too."
Some audience members said they found Safire's historical analysis of a topic with contemporary relevance enlightening.
"It provided a neat new outlook," Deanna C. Michaud '01 said of the free speech discussion. "I've always been of the persuasion that the media are overly aggressive, but he brought out a really good point that this is our tradition."
While Michaud said she is not "totally convinced" about the salutary effects of scandal-probing journalism, she said, "Maybe it's not as bad as we think it is."
A follow-up panel discussion on the topic of sedition and free speech is scheduled to occur tomorrow morning from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the Malkin Penthouse.
The panel will feature Safire, Kalb, MIT History Professor Pauline Maier, Justice Margaret H. Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, National Public Radio news analyst Daniel Schorr and David Shribman, The Boston Globe's Washington bureau chief