Monday, September 28, 2009

Safire's Vision

When I read that William Safire had died over the weekend, I immediately thought of a remarkable column Safire wrote back in March of 1991, in which he attempted to predict what the world would look like five years later.

As is normal for such predictions, Safire got a lot wrong. No intra-European army was ever formed to replace NATO, George H. W. Bush was not reelected in 1992, Norman Schwartzkopf never ran for president; there are plenty of prophesies in the column (many of them obviously tongue-in-cheek) that never came true.

Safire's crystal ball was clearer on a few items, and some of them were not that difficult to predict. The old East did become a massive economic headache for the eventually-reunified Germany. Yugoslavia did crumble into war shortly afterwards--this was possibly the most obvious prediction in the entire piece--and the Europeans, after dithering for years, did finally call Washington for military help.

But the most remarkable display of prescience came in this paragraph. I still remember reading it for the first time in the International Herald-Tribune, and marveling over its audacity with my Oxford tutor in Soviet Politics:

And what to do about the former Soviet republics, with their newly productive market systems? From Yeltsin in Russia to Sheverdnadze in Georgia, a curtain of grain will fall from the separated parts of the old Kremlin empire. Although capitalist Poland is reviving nicely, fresh competition from the former Soviet republics is now causing Central European unemployment.

In 2009, approaching the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, those words appear almost banal, but in early 1991, when Gorbachev was sending black beret KGB thugs into Lithuania to crack down on a nascent independence movement, they hit like a thunderbolt.

Even with the old Eastern Bloc having sloughed off the dead hand of Communism, the Soviet Union itself appeared as implacable and permanent as one of Stalin's grim apartment blocks. Although he lacked the strength and the stomach to crush the external revolutions of 1989, Gorbachev was still determined to maintain his own internal empire, and to keep his Communist Party in firm charge of Russia and the captured Soviet buffer states. For a figure as prominent as Safire to write, almost casually, of Yetsin and Shevardhaze--both still members and high-ranking officials of the Party--as the leaders of independent, non-Soviet states... that was so far outside of the status quo we'd lived under for so long, it sounded like something out of a fantasy novel.

But of course, that bolt-from-the-blue prediction came true, and it happened mere months after the Safire column went to press.

Safire like to recall an anecdote from his early days as a columnist at the New York Times, in which he went to his editor and said that he'd like to write a memo for then-President Nixon, but wasn't sure whether doing so would compromise his new job at the Times. The editor replied that Safire should write the memo, submit it as a column, "and the president will read it, and you'll get paid for it." Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

I've often wondered what the reaction in the Kremlin was like when Safire's March 1991 column was translated and disseminated. Who within those walls had the same reaction that so many of us had, the realization that someone as experienced and (yes) cynical as William Safire still believed it was be possible for the world to change, that much?

It was a remarkable time, and I strongly suspect that Safire, who had a hand in many remarkable things over his long life, played a hand in the days that followed, simply by thinking ahead and writing about what he imagined the world could be.

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