Everyone makes performative grammatical slip-ups. But not everyone gets to have William Safire catch her at it.

If there’s anybody whom I will tolerate correcting my speech, it’s the proverbial Source. William Safire, the most widely read writer on (not in) the English language, appeared in Ypsilanti on Monday during a fundraiser for the Washtenaw County Jewish Federation.

I got a chance to talk to him during a small press briefing (three reporters, including me) that was held prior to the event.

So what does one ask a lifelong, internationally renowned, conservative pundit who seems to know (and have an opinion on) everything, someone who reads Thomas Paine for fun? Jo Collins Mathis, a reporter and columnist for the Ann Arbor News, was the first to hit the obvious: (paraphrased) What happened with the midterm elections?

Safire, when he heard this question, seemed to take on a “where to begin?” sort-of look. He chose to start with what he called the “conventional wisdom:” The Democrats had no message and moreover, they had no messenger. Because of this fatal coupling of fatal errors, “they’re all wringing their hands now and flagellating themselves.”

But it’s not as simple as all this, Safire seemed to qualify. Tom Daschle (“I like Daschle … he knows … how to tug his forelock and look innocent”), Richard Gephardt, Bill Clinton (“he enlivened my life”) and Al Gore did, indeed, hit the campaign trail (but granted, not nearly as hard as President Bush). However, their platform was hazy: they “sort of oppose the President on the war,” but on this issue, are still “dragging their foot.” The Democrats were lost in an ambiguous stand on the hot topic.

The mistake that Safire clearly identified as “a foolish exercise” on the part of Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe was the over-investment, in terms of finance, time and effort, in Florida’s gubernatorial election. McAuliffe and others tried to make a test of Florida, believing that if they were able to show that the Democratic candidate, Bill McBride, could earn the mandate of the people over incumbent Jeb Bush (largely blamed for the 2000 election debacle), that vote would make a sweeping statement: The presidential elections were not legitimate, thereby rendering President Bush an illegitimate president. McAuliffe and the DNC gambled and lost.

Safire, however, put this November’s Democratic defeat into the perspective that seems to have lost itself in the post-election analyses and fatalistic predictions: The elections were “not a sweep.” There was a two-seat switch in the Senate, which, granted, changed a lot by virtue of the January majority/minority party swap. In terms of raw numbers, however, two out of 100 is not a doomsday omen. Me, I hope that it’s enough of a sign to warn the Democrats to get their act together.

During the course of the conversation, Safire made two surprising comments. The wackier: When asked if Hillary Clinton would ever make a vie at the presidency, Safire predicted (“Usually I do very well, I get four or five out of 20 predictions right every year”) that Hillary will not run in 2004, but in 2008 will lose the presidential election to the governor of California (dramatic pause here), who will be Condoleezza Rice, currently President Bush’s National Security Advisor.

The second of these left-field comments involved the drawing of an interesting connection between American and Israeli politics (which he had hinted at in Monday’s column in The New York Times). He wondered to us whether the Democrats would follow suit (if not exactly in action, in principle) with Israel’s Labor Party, which left the governing coalition earlier this month because of irreconcilable differences with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposed budget. Will the Democrats fall in love with minority status and come to cherish the position of the downtrodden dove, the principled margin, of American politics? “If that’s what the Democrats want to do,” Safire, a conservative-libertarian, answered himself, “then hey, great.”

The Democrats need to shape up. None other than my Greek professor commented last Wednesday morning that the Republican candidates during this election were, on the whole, younger and smarter than those whom the Democrats put forth. Safire noted that he likes Rush Limbaugh because he “added a touch of showbiz to right wing politics.” If the Democrats are in the market for resuscitation, maybe it’s time they stop taking the glamorous thrill of left wing politics for granted.

So what was my linguistic mistake? Oh woe upon woe, during a split second of hesitation and a desperate grab at a conversation-filler I uttered a semantically vacuous “like:” that faithfully persistent enemy of the prescriptive grammarian.

I was embarrassed, of course, but he was very kind and light-hearted about my slip-up. Might as well learn (or experience minor humiliation) at the hands of the, like, experts.

Johanna Hanink can be reached at jhanink@umich.edu.

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