Remembering Bill Safire and the Fine Art of Pot-stirring

by Janet Eilber

November 23, 2009

Bill Safire had a specific public persona that he was well aware of and in which he reveled. Bill knew he had carved out a reputation as the world’s leading wordsmith and as the conservative columnist that we bleeding-hearts liberals (as he liked to call me) loved to hate—or, better, hated to love. 

As Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, points out in “Another Side of Safire," Bill would often begin a speech by calling himself a “vituperative right-wing scandalmonger.” This invariably drew a laugh and woke up the critics. Like Jack Benny joking about his own thrift, Bill knew how to get the most out of a self-deprecating slow “take.”

Yet those who allowed Bill’s conservative political stance to define him in total were wildly misled. His mind ranged liberally (sorry, Bill—couldn’t resist) over a diverse array of interests. He had an avidity for new ideas and a probing curiosity that was surely elemental to his work as a journalist. He asked great questions, was equally brilliant at listening, and he loved to “stir the pot,” as he called it.

Scientists, artists, politicians, children—whomever he happened to be sitting next to, actually—would find themselves being drawn out and sharing confidences. When he heard something that triggered his interest, he would say, “Give me a little more of that,” spurring the speaker to dig more deeply into the subject. He often returned from the annual Society for Neuroscience conference invigorated by his conversations with the great thinkers of that field. One particular session was a favorite. He and several scientists had, while finishing a bottle of the finest brandy, done nothing less than map out a visionary path of scientific inquiry for the next generation. Unfortunately, the next morning none of them could remember what had been said.

In our work at the Dana Foundation, I was subjected to Bill’s style of stirring the pot on many occasions. Just as I thought we were winding down a long meeting, he would say, “Now where do we go from here?” “What’s the next big thing?” “How can we take this to the next level?” It was an invitation to dream. By the time I left his office, he had helped me think with abandon, rummage around in all sorts of possibilities and take stands on things I didn’t know I knew.

“That’s good stuff, kid. I’m for you!” he’d say before sending me out the door with, “Now stiffen the sinews and stretch the nostrils wide!” I would head off into the breach inspired and eager to take on a project that was much more exciting—and usually far more work—than I had first imagined.

Bill appreciated that his role as chairman of the Dana Foundation was the perfect vehicle for his passion for new ideas. He could not only explore and encourage innovation; he could invest in it. 

With the clear-sighted advice of Dana President Ed Rover, who has succeeded Bill at the helm, and the enthusiasm of the Dana Board of Directors, Bill urged the Foundation to champion projects that pushed into the unknown—ideas that other funders might reject as too risky. As an organization, we are proud of the many prescient projects Dana has seeded—especially those that, once launched, have received substantial support from other, less adventurous funders.

When Bill became chairman in 2000, he expanded Dana’s reach into arts education, championing his love of creative thinking in both the arts and sciences. A few years later, he recognized that the Foundation’s separate interests in the arts and in the brain were on a collision course. He seized on the idea that neuroscientists could research how the study of the arts might influence better thinking and learning. And with the help of Dana’s scientific consultant, Guy McKhann, the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium studies were initiated.  (The report on the initial findings is available here.)

And in the last year, he pushed us to take those findings to the next step—to help develop the new field of neuroeducation and find ways to get the promising arts and cognition findings into the classroom, where they could benefit young minds. You’ll find some of his thoughts on the topic in his introduction to the just-released Dana publication, “Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts, and the Brain.”

Bill would put on a straight face and tell a crowd that the first Sunday in November was his favorite day of the year because he could actually turn back the clock. But the truth is, though he loved tradition and tunes from the ’40s, told wonderful stories about a life well-led and had his conservative convictions firmly in place, Bill Safire was crazy about the future.

In one of our last conversations, he said, “If neuroeducation is the next big thing, get in front of it.” How does one get in front of a new idea? I have to stretch my nostrils wide and think about it. Thanks, Bill.