WASHINGTON — Conservative columnist William Safire was not quite a B student in college before dropping out and beginning a career that would take him to the White House and earn him a Pulitzer Prize, according to details released in his FBI file.
The FBI this month released nearly 350 pages of documents related to Safire, who died in September at the age of 79. The documents became public after Safire's death and date from 1965 to 1994.
Many of the documents are biographical, including some 125 pages from a background investigation conducted when he became a speech writer for President Richard Nixon in 1969. A former employer, one of more than 30 people interviewed, told FBI investigators that Safire was able to work "long hours under enormous pressure and that he had demonstrated extreme stability in such situations."
The man, John Reagan McCrary, a radio host and publicist, called Safire nearly "glacial" in pressure situations. A client told investigators that Safire had always been "careful to avoid exaggeration" and to "fairly represent the accomplishments" of the company.
Another 175 pages detail wiretapping ordered by the Nixon administration, including the tapping of Safire's phone. Safire later learned about the tapping, and it shaped his feelings about warrantless wiretapping conducted during President George Bush's administration.
A few pages also detail a threatening letter Safire received in 1994 from a reader angry about his columns on the Clinton administration. Safire, a New York Times columnist for more than 30 years, told FBI officials it was the only threatening letter he had ever received. The sender could not be identified, and the case was eventually closed.
Some of the earliest material dates from 1969, when investigators did a background check on Safire, who was joining the Nixon White House as a speech writer. The FBI's investigators learned that Safire, then 39, had been an "honor senior" at the Bronx High School of Science and served as circulation manager of the newspaper. As a student at Syracuse University between 1947 and 1949, he had an average "just short of a B" before quitting the school. Later, while running his own public relations firm, he had clients such as The Good Humor Corporation and Ex-Lax Inc. in Brooklyn.
The bulk of the file is only partly related to Safire, however, and includes an investigation into the wiretapping, which lasted from 1969 into 1971 and was apparently started because of leaks surrounding Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. The talks between the U.S. and Soviet Union were on the subject of arms control. The documents show Safire was among more than a dozen people, including some at the White House and four journalists, whose phones were tapped. The wiretap on Safire lasted four months and found nothing.
"I have a thing about wiretapping," Safire said on "Meet The Press" in 2006, describing what had happened to him and referencing wiretapping during the Bush administration. "I didn't like that ... it told me how easy it was to just take somebody who was not really suspected of anything for any good reason and listen to every conversation in his home."
He had been more forceful in his criticism after learning of the wiretaps in 1973, writing in a column that he hadn't worked for Nixon to "have him – or some lizard-lidded paranoid acting in his name without his approval – eavesdropping on my conversations."
On the Net:
Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://foia.fbi.gov/hottopics.htm