I was excited to see the newspaper headline “Bielema liberal.” “After all those neo-Nazis, we’ve finally got a coach who thinks right,” I told friends. “I wonder if he belongs to the ADA.”

Then they pointed out to me that I’d only read the first line of the headline. The second was “defining ‘sacks’. ” So the headline writer meant only that Bielema was “not literal or strict” in defining certain football terminology, not that he’d enlisted in the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

That incident, and the fact it’s an election year, started me thinking about “liberal” and “conservative” as they’re used in political discourse.

William Safire was a hard-core conservative himself, but sometimes fair-minded. In “Safire’s Political Dictionary,” he gives these definitions:


“LIBERAL — currently one who believes in more government action to meet individual needs; originally one who resisted government encroachment on individual liberties.

“In the original sense the word described those of the emerging middle classes in France and Great Britain who wanted to throw off the rules the dominant aristocracy had made to cement its own control.”


“CONSERVATIVE — a defender of the status quo who, when change becomes necessary in tested institutions or practices, prefers that it come slowly, and in moderation. …Today the more rigid conservative generally opposes virtually all governmental regulation of the economy. He favors local and state action over federal action, and emphasizes fiscal responsibility, most notably in the form of balanced budgets.”

There’s a lot more, and some of it seems dated today. Safire’s Dictionary was first published in 1968. He’s correct though in pointing out that conservatives have succeeded in making “liberal” a dirty word in some quarters, so much so that some liberals avoid the term themselves.

“In the 1976 presidential primaries, Rep. Morris Udall told columnist David Broder: ‘When a word takes on connotations you don’t like, it’s time to change the label.’ Henceforth, Udall said — though he would think of himself as a liberal — he would use the word ‘progressive’ instead because the word ‘liberal’ was ‘associated with abortion, drugs, busing and big-spending wasteful government.”