Give Bill Safire's retirement some of Dan Rather's ink

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What I most like about my favorite columnist, Bill Safire, is the way he so deftly uses informed conjecture to speculate on what might happen two or three steps from now.

So I wondered how he himself would write about his decision to stop writing his op-ed column in the New York Times.

I was very surprised when I read the brief, unceremonious announcement buried inside the Times. Mr. Safire said "after more than three decades of opinionated reporting on the world's first and foremost political battle page, it's time to hang up my hatchet. The Times said at the start of this run that it wanted `another point of view,' which was surely what it got."

The timing seems odd, coming right after the re-election of President Bush. Mr. Safire being the conservative libertarian he is, is the Times' best pipeline into the inner workings of the Bush Administration.

What's more, he was hot on the trail of the United Nations Oil-For-Food scandal, a story that some say hasn't gotten big play in papers across the country because the Times itself has been slow to splash the story across its own front page. Mr. Safire wrote last month that Senate investigators "will present evidence that the huge rip-off engineered by Saddam Hussein-with the connivance of corrupt U.N. officials" could reach $23 billion.

"Such heavy spending affects U.N. votes," Mr. Safire dryly observed.

The U.N. story has everything-huge money, bribery, kickbacks, money laundering, phony billings, slipshod inspections. It raises the question-and this is what Mr. Safire is so good at doing-about the objectivity of the U.N. when it comes to assessing the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq War.

The question that somebody needs to ask is who will continue to dig up the dirt on the U.N. corruption when Mr. Safire hangs up his hatchet and confines himself to writing his "On Language" column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine?

And to ask another question: Does the Times now have any incentive to pursue a story that could possibly undermine its position-in news stories, columns and editorials-that the war in Iraq is an unnecessary disaster?

At any rate it was uncharacteristic of Mr. Safire, renowned for his sense of drama and flair, to bow out in such a low-key manner. Before he was a journalist, he was a PR man, and his account, the World's Fair in Moscow, put him on the map. In 1959, when he was promoting the "typical American House," complete with color TV and dishwasher, Vice President Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev got in an animated discussion-later dubbed "The Kitchen Debate"-about the U.S. and Russia competing over the relative merits of washing machines instead of the strength of rockets.

In another prominent retirement, the Times put the story of Dan Rather hanging up his microphone on the front page, with two sidebars on his "bittersweet, poignant and somewhat mysterious" career. Would it have been inappropriate to save some of that ink for one of their own who is leaving untarnished and on top of his game?

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