I noticed today that Williams Safire died. So, perhaps it is an appropriate time to recount the time, twelve years ago, that our paths crossed politically.
That crossing was rather unexpected. Safire was, famously, a libertarian, conservative Republican, who had worked not only for Nixon but also Agnew ("nattering nabobs of negativism."). I am a standard issue left-liberal Northeastern academic, who was raised on a deep antipathy to Nixon and Agnew. But Safire and I shared a certain skepticism about the faux-democratic government of Singapore.
In 1995, Williams College, where I teach, decided to grant an honorary degree to Prime Minister Goh Chok-Tong of Singapore. Some faculty, myself included, thought this was a bad idea, given the Singaporean government's track record on limiting academic freedom. We asked that the invitation be rescinded. The president of the college - a true gentleman, Hank Payne - said that he could not do that. So, we took our protest to the national level. Knowing that Safire had a history of challenging Singapore, we contacted him and alerted him to both the upcoming award and our protest of it. He responded magnificently, with an NYT op-ed on July 10, 1995, entitled "Honoring Repression." In it, he published my email address in an effort to link up our protest with others who might be sympathetic:
Should Williams College rescind its invitation, as "No Goh" faculty urge? Quite the contrary; let's hear his anti-freedom pitch. But a Williams political scientist (George.T.Crane at williams.edu) is organizing a serious, educational counter-award ceremony.
We did, indeed, have a counter-award ceremony, a weekend of talks and panels from leading Singaporean opposition figures.
In the run-up to the weekend Goh and his apparatchiks came up with the idea of inviting both Safire and me (I had become infamous in the city-state for an op-ed I had published in the Washington Post on August 30, reprinted in full below the fold; no link available) to come and debate him in Singapore. They would pay all of our expenses. Of course, it was a set-up, an attempt to lure us into a venue packed with ardent Young PAP. When the offer was made, I got a message to contact Safire. We talked on the phone. He asked me: "What should we do?" I thought to myself: "This is rich. Here's a moment when William Safire and I have been lumped together." I told him I had no thought of going (my wife, worried I might get arrested, would not let me!) and that his idea of another op-ed in response was a good one. It was a scathing and hilarious piece, "Singapore's Fear:"
Evidently Goh Chok Tung, the puppet who is keeping the Prime Minister's seat warm for one of Dictator Lee Kuan Yew's sons, became fearful at the revelation in this space that he may be confronted on his great day by the exiled Singaporean dissident Francis Seow, now a fellow at Harvard Law School.
Supporters of academic freedom at Williams want to arrange a debate between Goh and Seow. The trustees, who recently voted (8 to 7) to stick with the embarrassing invitation, hope the college's mistake in honoring repression can be rectified by having such a debate.
But dictator Lee wants Goh to avoid it at all costs. How to duck the dissident without appearing craven?
Result: A left-handed invitation has been extended to me and the Williams "no-Goh" organizer to come to Singapore to debate Mr. Goh. (The all-expense-paid invitation, in a letter to The Times that I hope runs today, is only "to" that island state, but presumably it is not intended to be one-way.)
But the best part was Safire's description of the crowd that would pack the hall in Singapore:
I would be pleased to engage in a one-on-one debate on universal values. But it's no fun to go up against anybody's "stooge," as Mr. Goh recently complained he is so frequently called. I'm ready to debate Lee Kuan Yew himself, and the dictator only.
The venue? A nation under the rule of law -- not Singapore, and not in front of an audience selected for me of Lee's relatives, cane-wielding thugs, Serbian generals, B.N.L. bankers, Packwood accusers and the Saddam Hussein Fan Club.
Since Dictator Lee admires the work of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, where we have both spoken in recent years, a debate at the next Davos meeting would be accessible to an unintimidated press.
How about it, Mr. Lee? My one proviso: that your man Goh also agrees to debate Francis Seow, the Singaporean opponent your uptight regime obviously fears most, at Williams college this fall.
The Goh-Seow debate never happened, even though I had the pleasure and honor of spending a weekend with Mr. Seow. And neither did the Lee-Safire debate. It was all posturing on the part of the Singaporean leaders.
I never met Safire face-to-face, but one late summer we found ourselves thrown together as adversaries of the Singapore government. Rest in peace.
My WaPo piece is below the fold.