A Writer Consults an Ancient Dissident

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FROM his leathery, oaken corner office just a few hundred yards from the White House, William Safire writes some of the most influential punditry in American politics.

His attitude, to a great extent, comes from the land of Uz.

Mr. Safire holds a lifelong interest in the book of Job, the poetic Old Testament story of the grievously afflicted man from ancient Uz.

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for The New York Times, language columnist for the Times's Sunday magazine, and former speechwriter for President Nixon has collected books about the book of Job since before he dropped out of Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

Now, after years of studying and extracting the lessons of Job, he has written a book of his own in which he applies Job's message to modern politics - "The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today's Politics" (Random House, 306 pp., $23).

The message bears no resemblance to the patience-of-Job cliche. He disputes the traditional reading of Job as a long-suffering man desperately tormented by God until his faith is sufficiently tested and his well-being restored.

Nor in Safire's reading is Job altogether the romantic rebel in a general rage against the authority of an unjust God, a view popular in recent decades.

But Safire's Job is a dissident of stubborn integrity and sheer nerve, a blasphemer but never an unbeliever. "He is a force for freedom within a stretchable framework of order," Safire writes.

Safire's own concept of God is of a powerful - but not all-powerful - creator who leaves it to man to carve out justice in the world.

The example of Job is a constant presence in the political thinking of Safire, who tends to be a libertarian conservative in his views. In a recent interview with the Monitor, he explained how he uses the book of Job.

In deciding not to support George Bush in the recent election, for example, he consulted Job on the importance of personal loyalty, because Mr. Bush is an old friend. Loyalty is very important, but integrity to principle comes first, Safire concluded.

Safire writes an axiom he thinks Job would have arrived at: "Personal loyalty is a value that transcends theological and ideological disagreement."

Nevertheless, in conversation, he says: "In the end, where is the basic loyalty? The basic loyalty of an individual is to his integrity, to his principles, to his own conscience.

"You weigh these conflicting loyalties.

"I looked at Job and made my decision on the basis of - not personal loyalty or loyalty to party - but in terms of what I felt was right for myself, my politics, and my country."

Safire's interest is in making Job useful, in drawing the practical lessons of an ancient figure that he senses as a presence in his life.

"I think the Bible, and particularly this book of the Bible ... is intended for regular everyday use and that we should read the Bible for its application to our lives," the writer says.

"And that's what I've done here, and frankly what I've been doing all my life with this book, drawing on it for specific lessons in the application of power."

Job-style dissidence has had a good run in the late 20th century. Safire credits the Reagan arms buildup with the fall of the Soviet empire, but he says political dissidents opened the first cracks in Soviet authority.

From Andrei Sakharov to Vaclav Havel to the Chinese students of Tiananmen Square, dissidents have been making their stand for integrity over authority, Safire notes. "Job would be very proud," he says.

A Job-like dissident for whom Safire holds special admiration is the late Kurdish leader Mulla Mustapha al-Barzani. The Kurds have suffered under many of the governments that control different parts of the region that Kurdish nationalists call Kurdistan, and they have been betrayed often in seeking independence.

Mr. al-Barzani's son now leads Kurds against the oppression of Iraqis, Turks, Syrians, and Iranians. Safire's book on Job is dedicated to al-Barzani the father.

Another Jobian principle is reflected in the greater willingness of the United States to intervene abroad to alleviate massive suffering of the innocent, and for the purpose "not to allow the commission of genocide within another country's borders," Safire says.

"This is new," he adds.

Possible genocide is occurring in Bosnia. Somalia presents a different rationale for intervention, but still based on the suffering of the innocent. The lesson Safire applies from Job, a controversial one theologically, is that it is up to man, not God, to alleviate such injustice.

Not all dissidence is good, Safire points out. It is good when it challenges authority on behalf of freedom and fairness. His Job would not hold with college students who shout down speakers they don't approve of.

But, he says, "When I see a dissident, I give him the benefit of the doubt."

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