Folks will have to bear with me today. I have a rotten head cold, and my temperament is set on the “difficult curmudgeon” setting this morning — sort of like William Safire on most days.
There is so much that can be said about William Safire, and many in the progressive community are saying them. But let me venture into the mine fields for a moment to say some good things about this curmudgeon at the New York Times. And before folks jump on me, just know that I realize he has been irresponsible in his past commentary regarding Hillary Clinton, something which he mostly admits now; and he is far too much a flack for Ariel Sharon.
I’m an anecdote guy — so I will share one. When I moved to Washington, I came here as the first executive director of what was then called the Nixon Center for Peace & Freedom, later just the Nixon Center. I spent a year out at the Nixon Library getting this project off the ground and then opened the offices here in D.C. before realizing that I was much less a Nixon-groupie than most of the people I was working with. I then went to work in the U.S. Senate for Jeff Bingaman.
I came into contact with Safire in my role at the Nixon Center and discovered that he had real problems with Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew‘s style of authoritarianism combined with a strong market economy. Lee and then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir popularized this brand of leadership and governance, “Asian Values.”
Safire called them both thugs.
Because Lee Kuan Yew had just sued and run out of Singapore a friend of mine, Christopher Lingle, who had intimated in an International Herald Tribune article (and not actually written) that some Asian governments (read Singapore) did not have independent judiciaries, the Singapore government began hunting Chris Lingle down by trying to bankrupt and then incarcerate him.
Safire wrote something about Lingle, and then I decided to feed Safire more material, which he used for several follow-on articles.
Where this gets much more interesting though is that around the time I had decided to leave the Nixon Center, I had been planning on having a major conference that would debate the “Asian Values” theology promoted by Lee and Mahathir and was in the process of inviting the Singapore Senior Minister to come to a forum that would wrestle (in a fair and balanced way) with this question. I sent Safire the outline of my plan because I wanted Safire to moderate or chair the meeting.
Then one morning, I hear from our receptionist, “Steve, William Safire is on the phone for you” (and she whispered, “he doesn’t sound happy.”)
I picked up the phone, and after a nanosecond of courtesy, Safire said, “I have just one thing to say. If you provide a stage for Lee Kuan Yew, I will blast Lee, I will blast the Nixon Center, and I will blast YOU.”
It’s a strange feeling to know that Safire’s canon was, in part, directly pointed at my head. He had misunderstood the material I had sent as my lauding Yew’s “Asian Values” ideology, rather than critiquing it. After a long and disjointed explanation, I was able to convince Safire that paying tribute to Lee was not my intention, but what I did want to do was make him accountable in Washington for his views.
I told Safire that I was leaving the Nixon Center in any case and that I didn’t expect the meeting to go forward.
A few months after I went to the Senate, however, I learned that the Nixon Center had kept the invitation to Lee Kuan Yew alive — and had in fact turned a conference that was about policy and substance into a fundraising dinner at which Lee Kuan Yew would be presented the Nixon Center’s first “Architect of the New Century Award.”
I got early word of the dinner and decided that if Safire heard about this dinner — even if I was no longer at the Center — I ran the risk of that canon blast again.
So, I decided to be a bit Nixonian in my response. I was very irritated that this dinner which could have been about an important policy debate about models of political and economic development had morphed into yet another example of the kind of structural corruption of corporate America before powerful thugs like Indonesia’s Suharto, Malaysia’s Mahathir, and Singapore’s Lee.
When I had been at the Nixon Center, I had encouraged Chalmers Johnson to serve as a member of the Center’s Advisory Council. Knowing he would be as outraged as I was that the Asian Values conference had been retooled into an Asian Values kow-tow fundraiser, Chalmers Johnson resigned from the Nixon Center Advisory Council with a good fiery letter of protest.
This news, combined with the publication of a new important paper by Gary Rodan by the Japan Policy Research Institute (which I co-founded with Chalmers Johnson) titled “Information Technology and Political Control in Singapore,” gave me the news hooks that I thought might entice Safire to write something.
He did. He actually wrote two article.
Here are the original articles, but note that in the second one, the URL for the Rodan paper and Chalmers Johnson’s email address are no longer accurate:
The New York Times, October 21, 1996
Get Riady, Get Set . . .
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
I will now stop using Nixon postage stamps. That’s because the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom is raising money by honoring Lee Kuan Yew, the dictator of Singapore.
This sucking-up to a tinpot tyrant with dynastic pretensions who derides as “decadent” the Western ideal of individual liberty was the brainchild of Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger, in fond remembrance of Lee’s anti-Communism during the Vietnam War, and of U.S. corporate superpragmatists who hope Asian governments will smile on their endeavors.
My Nixonite friends miss the central point of the ideo-economic struggle going on in today’s world.
On one side are governments that put “order” above all, and offer an under-the-table partnership to managers who like arranged outcomes and a docile work force. That cozy cronyism between officialdom and capitalists — the Chinese word for such “connections” is guanxi — shortchanges workers and consumers.
On the other side — our side — are free enterprisers creating wealth. By combining the profit motive with political freedom, and by using state power to protect individual rights, we reward the work ethic with the merit system. That competitive spirit defeated Communism.
Today the free economy faces a different competitor. The “Singapore model” — drug-free but freedom-free — attracts the rigid oligarchies of China and Indonesia, as well as Mideast autocracies. Dictator Lee claims his booming island mall reflects “Asian values,” but his unfree enterprise is not the way of Asian democracies from Hong Kong to India.
Nor is corporate statism bred in the Asian bone. Asian immigrants to the U.S. have long been law-abiding exemplars of hard work and self-reliance. Asian-Americans, who have every right to donate to campaigns, have a right to be furious at any racist association of their community with the system of political payola being perpetrated by the Indonesian business mafia and influence-peddlers in the Clinton Administration.
The Buddhist worshiper who was used as a money-laundering front (she was handed her $5,000 in small bills and induced to write a check for that amount to the Clinton campaign) was victimized; whoever conned her belongs in jail. Al Gore’s illegal foray into that Buddhist temple in Los Angeles to rip off $140,000 for his campaign introduced a shamelessness into raising money from foreign sources that almost matched Bill Clinton’s personal involvement in the arm-pumping of a South Korean for an illegal $250,000 contribution.
Not only was the giant foreign Lippo conglomerate able to slip a few million into the Clinton campaigns; not only did it subsequently plant its longtime operative John Huang in a sensitive U.S. Government post with top-secret clearance to see all our trade negotiating positions; and not only could his Indonesian bosses claim credit back home for a Clinton decision to kill an investigation into Suharto human-rights abuses.
The larger transgression is that Clinton and Gore are importing an infection into the American political system. True, we have our own, home-grown fund-raising predations, which we try to alleviate by requiring full disclosure, and Democrats will surely publicize some G.O.P. chicanery to enlist Common Cause in a soothing “everybody does it.”
But foreign favoritism on this Clintonian scale is an economic evil never visited on us before. “Gift-giving is not seen as corruption or bribery,” a U.S. executive doing guanxi explained to a Times reporter in Indonesia. “Some time in the future, perhaps, you are going to need to call on your friends for assistance, and one way to build friendship is by gift-giving.”
We in a free country see a “gift” to a government official by a company official seeking future favors as a bribe. But in Indonesia and China, where fixing is a fixation and favoritism is favored, “gift giving” avoids the unruliness of competition and the agitation of union organizers.
Our way is better, both morally and practically. Political freedom is a value in itself, while economic freedom — open competition — brings greater prosperity to more people.
That’s why we must expose and root out the insidious networking of the Clintons and their billionaire Indonesian wheeler-dealers. And that’s why all good Nixonites should absent themselves from a fund-raiser doing honor to a dictator who despises a free press and individual liberty.
Here is a follow-up piece, after the Nixon Center responded to his first blast at the Lee Kuan Yew dinner.
New York Times, November 14, 1996
The Dictator Speaks
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
The Nixon Center for Peace and Pragmatism (formerly Freedom) demeaned itself this week by using Lee Kuan Yew, the dictator of Singapore, as the draw to raise $400,000 for its staff’s salaries.
Two of the young men thus subsidized took umbrage at my criticism of this “Architect of the New Century” award that Henry Kissinger arranged be given to his tinpot-tyrant friend. They complained hotly in a letter to The New York Times that “there is something bigoted” in my objection to such kowtowing.
“Bigoted”? For a long generation, I have been defending Richard Nixon from appearances of bigotry on his tapes. I do not appreciate having that ugly motive attributed to me by foundationiks who were in knee pants during Nixon’s wilderness years.
Ironically, that same racial innuendo is being used by President Clinton, who last week sought to discredit reporting of the corruption scandal brewing around his fund-raiser John Huang with “there has been a lot of rather disparaging comments made about Asian-Americans.”
Sorry, it won’t wash; corruption and repression of dissent, which go hand in hand, afflict every race.
Dictator Lee is the man who said of elections, “The government will not be blackmailed by the people,” and for years derided Western values of free speech and individual liberty as “decadent.”
But under Henry’s tutelage this week, Lee was a changed man. “Asians have quietly adopted useful Western values, social practices and management methods to varying degrees,” Singapore’s strongman soothed the $1,000-a-platers in Washington, “and now have a blend of East and West in their value systems.”
In praising the Clinton decision to de-link China’s human rights actions from trade advantages, Singapore’s boss-for-life even departed from text to assert, “I am not against human rights or democracy.”
That ringing declaration was worthy of an Architect of the New Century, even though it was prelude to his warning against using “external pressure or sanctions” on Chinese leaders now jailing more dissenters. Lee also urged Clinton to bring China into the World Trade Organization, a strategy of pre-emptive concession. (Privately, Lee is pushing for his Tommy Koh as U.N. Secretary General, which would be a disaster.)
“What’s your hang-up about Harry Lee?” an old Nixon hand asks me, using the name the Architect used to go by. “Isn’t he tough on drugs? And isn’t he good for global business?”
About drugs: Lee has won plaudits for hanging anyone caught even possessing 500 grams of marijuana. But the death-to-potheads set does not know that Singapore is the biggest trading partner of, and a heavy investor in, the military dictatorship of Burma — a world center of heroin distribution. Backers of the Burmese dissident Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, who want to stop the drug traffic, have no friend in Lee Kuan Yew.
When the Australian broadcaster Michael Carey questioned potential ties between Singapore investments and the drug lords protected by Burma’s junta, Lee harassed a leader of one of the tiny opposition parties for daring to appear on the program.
About business, and the Singapore planes running on time: In the information age, the electronics-packed island seeks to become the “intelligent island,” center of Asian communications. But here is where technology’s progress runs into the stone wall of political repression.
Lee’s ultimate enemy is the Internet. Lee’s son and designated successor boasts he can control Internet access and thereby block the computer window to the world — with all its subversive political ideas — under cover of protecting Asian eyes from Western pornography. For example, Singaporeans cannot get to the “hot” Web site run by freedom-minded Chinese students at Stanford U.
Let’s run a test. “Information Technology and Political Control in Singapore” is a paper just issued by Prof. Gary Rodan of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, distributed by Chalmers Johnson of the Japan Policy Research Institute in Cardiff, Calif. It’s on this Web site: http://www.nmjc.org/jpri/.
If Lee blocks access, Singaporeans, try E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. But be careful, global business executives: the Architect of the New Century may be monitoring everything you download.
I have a very good relationship with the Nixon Center today, by the way. It was through the Center’s good auspices that I was invited to the Francis Fukuyama dinner where I saw so clearly a brewing neocon civil war.
But I liked what Safire did. He was a former Nixon speech-writer and had loyalties to various players in Nixon legacydom, but he did not let those loyalties constrain his commentary about Lee and those who wanted to kow-tow to him and his brand of illiberal rule.
The other reason I like Safire is that he wrote a fun novel, Scandalmonger, which provides a fictional account of the early days in America of political pampleteers.
The main focus of his novel is James Callendar, who was in some ways a combination of Matt Drudge and Josh Marshall, and maybe Wonkette, combined. Callendar, of course, was the gossip writer who broke both the scandals of Alexander Hamilton’s extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds as well as the allegations that Thomas Jefferson was having children with his slave-mistress Sally Hemings.
Safire’s novel is really about America’s first op-ed writers, and also its first would-be bloggers.
Safire deserves a lot of the criticism that has been directed his way, but he has also written some powerful and important commentary that deserves a salute.
Besides, I’m in a curmudeonish mood this morning, with a cold that won’t stop, and Safire’s outlook seems more understandable to me from my current miserable vantage point.
— Steve Clemons