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The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today's Politics.

In an obituary not long ago, a former Wisconsin governor commented on a longtime state government reporter, a good and decent man who had weathered the loss of a child and a career-ending stroke with equanimity only to suffer and die of cancer.

Such acceptance in the face of "almost Job-like testing," the governor said, raised an important question about fairness in life.

William Safire would not have approved, either of the governor's interpretation of the lesson of Job or of the poor scribe's failure to strike back at his misfortune. Contrary to the common view, Safire argues the book of Job is not a "paean to patience" but a far more radical demand for questioning, doubting, defying, protesting. In short, the lesson is aggressive dissidence.

Leave it to a self-crowned professional contrarian to argue such a point. And argue Safire does in his new book, a work that finds him at various times - and often simultaneously - a theologian, a biblical scholar, a psychologist, a pundit and, as always, a political lexicographer.

This is no writer's first book; the thesis - connecting Job to modern freedom fighters - is too audacious. But Safire, for two decades a columnist for the New York Times and author of the popular "On Language" column, is the current 800-pound gorilla of the op-ed page. A collector of books and analyses about Job, Safire said he long wanted to explore his reading of the story, and here he gets his chance.

Job, Safire suggests, was the first dissident. In the biblical story, Job was the good and successful man whose faith was tested by God at Satan's challenge. Job questioned God's sense of fair play for so burdening a faithful man who had not sinned.

Safire views such anger as admirable, finding in Job's rebelliousness, however short-lived, a spirit embodied in the modern world by Martin Luther King Jr., Natan Sharansky, Vaclav Havel and others who have challenged oppressive authority.

Americans, he says, admire standup guys, which accounts for Job's continued popularity 2,500 years after the story was told. From the radical Job, Safire draws lessons for today's leaders (losers, he says, will find more than winners) and even more for today's followers.

"The book of Job endorses a vassal's right to make demands on his lord," he writes.

Wait, you say. This champion of dissidents, could it really be the onetime, and still loyal, aide to Richard Nixon, famously intolerant of such challenges? Yes, it is. Even Safire recognizes the contradiction, acknowledging that "where you stand depends on where you sit."

There are actually two books at work here, one far easier to absorb than the other.

First, there is his scholarly examination of the book of Job, its roots, its translations and - this being Safire - its language. Often he interrupts himself to toss and juggle the words he so cleverly employs, then picks up in midtheodicy. Call it Mr. Language Person meets the Old Testament, which may hold the attention of that dedicated band of Jobophiles and Safire's Sunday language fans but will sorely test the average reader. That part demands, dare we say it Mr. Safire, patience.

Then there is Safire's anecdotal application of the dissident Job to modern politics, drawing lessons in loyalty, weakness, courage and leadership. But while his examples may fit the view he encourages, what of others who walk a less confrontational path? Is Mother Teresa, for one, a failure for not striking out in anger? Is Pat Buchanan walking in Job's footsteps or merely ranting?

And how does the average American vassal, one not blessed with money, power or political influence, make demands of his lord in a system too often controlled by monied special interests and depressingly out of reach? Revolution, perhaps?

Safire strives mightily to make his case. But when he asks at one point, "Am I reading into this more than is there?" this vassal's proper protest would be, "Yes."
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Author:McCann, Dennis
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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