William Safire, 79: Death has the final word

That vast right-wing conspiracy that the Clintons keep talking about has diminished noticeably in this grim season. In the course of a year, we have lost, among others, William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol and, now, William Safire. We are, as the saying goes, taking heavy casualties.

Safire, the eminent columnist for the New York Times and former speech writer for a number of eminentos, including Richard M. Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew, died Sunday at a hospice in Rockville, Md. He was 79. The cause of death was reliably reported to be pancreatic cancer.

Unless you exceed a certain age, or you’re a devotee of the Sunday Times Magazine — or, probably more likely, a word-and-grammar geek — you probably don’t have the vaguest idea who Safire was. Pity.

Safire’s political career imitated the trajectory of the GOP in the latter half of the 20th century, and he was an exacting — and honest — chronicler of the party’s debacle at the hands of Nixon, though he remained a staunch defender of the president’s foreign policy acumen. In that he was ahead of his time.

It was Safire who engineered the famous “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow at a U.S. exhibition between then-Vice President Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev in 1959. He also took the iconic photograph of the event that was plastered across the front pages of every major newspaper in the country.

Nixon was so impressed he hired Safire for the 1960 presidential race against John F. Kennedy.

Ancient history, perhaps, but instructive. Safire proved to be considerably more than a zephyr in the political firmament.

A self-described “libertarian conservative” who believed passionately in the big-tent approach to politics, he wielded his rhetorical sword against Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals who, he thought, were insufficiently attentive to the imperative of individual rights. That made him, interestingly enough, a staunch critic of the Patriot Act at the same time he was a fervent supporter of the invasion of Iraq.

Safire wrote many, if not most, of the speeches Nixon delivered on the economy and Vietnam, but it was his love of words and devilishly turned alliterations that led him to coin the terms “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hysterical hypochondriacs” that Vice President Agnew used with stunning effect against the administration’s foes.

Such hyperbole — there is no other word for it, at least in polite company — drove many liberals wild, and surely contributed to the intense glee they felt when Nixon and Agnew’s own perfidy finally brought the administration down in disgrace.

Safire was a survivor of the wreckage, signing on with the Times as an op-ed columnist, providing a counterbalance to what the paper’s excellent obituary called the “liberal chorus.” He soon won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary writing.

“For decades, Bill’s columns on the Times’s Op-Ed Page and in our Sunday Magazine delighted our readers with his insightful political commentary, his thoughtful analysis of our national discourse and, of course, his wonderful sermons on the use and abuse of language,” New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in a statement.

It was that preoccupation with language that earned Safire a devoted following, regardless of politics. For 30 years, he wrote the “On Language” column for the Times’ Sunday magazine, a destination for everyone who enjoyed plumbing the intricacies of the written and spoken word. It was enormous fun.

The Times’ obit summed it up with a Pickwickian dash of wit: Safire wrote about “blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire’s ‘rules for writers’: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!”

The author of more than 10 books, from a superb novel on the Civil War to biting political satire (my favorite is “Safire’s Political Dictionary”), he would no doubt have laughed heartily at Dr. Johnson’s self-definition of a wordsmith as “a harmless drudge.” A drudge, never. Harmless? Ask his opponents.

Requiescat in pace.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 09/28/2009 - 12:53 pm.

    Some hero of the right. He won his Pulitzer for accusing Bert Lance of a host of wrong doings. Lance resigned, but was acquitted at trial. In other words, he won a Pulitzer for wrongly accusing a public official and tying up the administration so it couldn’t do anything. The Pulitzer prizes should be ashamed every time Safire is mentioned as a winner.

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