Thursday, October 1, 2009

William Safire: 1929-2009

William Safire, 79, the Pulitzer Prize -winning Op-Ed columnist for
The New York Times, died Sunday in Rockville, MD of pancreatic cancer.

For more than three decades, Mr. Safire was the Dean of
the New York Times Op-Ed page, skewering both liberal and
conservative targets alike with his rapier wit and excruciatingly
sharp pen.

In addition to his political column, he also wrote a twice-monthly
column for the New York Times Magazine "On Language" , which
made grammar, syntax and spelling both understandable and

While he retired from active column-writing in 2005, his
"On Language" series continued until just last month, attracting
a worldwide following of writers whom Mr. Safire called his
" Lexicographic Irregulars".

But this latter-day Samuel Johnson combined his wit with
a solid dose of well-grounded principle and a journalist's
skepticism of the " Platitudinous Pronouncements of the

And in his columns, no self-satisfied political figure -
liberal or conservative - was safe.

Born William Safir in Brooklyn, (the "e" was added later to
guide pronunciation), he attended Syracuse University for
two years but dropped out to work as a publicist and writer for
Tex McRary, the dean of New York publicists in the 1950's.
Drafted into the Army shortly thereafter, he worked for Armed
Forces radio and stayed in Europe briefly after discharge to work
for NBC Radio.

Returning to the United States, he worked again for McRary,
producing the "Tex and Jinx" show on NBC which featured McRary
and his wife, Jinx Falkenburg. Rising to become a Vice President
of McRary's public relations firm in 1958, he orchestrated the
"Typical American Home" exhibit constructed by a McRary client
at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow.

Then-Vice President Richard Nixon opened the show in July 1959,
and Mr. Safire managed to corral both Nixon and Soviet Premier
Nikita Krushchev in the kitchen exhibit, provoking the famous
"kitchen debate" over the relative merits of communism and capitalism.

An AP photographer, blocked by the crowd, threw
Safire his camera, whereupon he snapped the famous
"kitchen debate" photograph used in the 1960 Presidential Campaign.

It also brought the young Bill Safire to Nixon's attention.

After working in the 1960 Nixon campaign, Mr. Safire opened
his own PR firm but continued to do political work, most notably
for Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay.
But after the 1964 Presidential campaign, he became
re-acquainted with Nixon, by then a New York lawyer who also
penned a weekly newspaper column.

Asked by Nixon to work with longtime aide Patrick Buchanan,
he began the speechwriting effort that would help bring Nixon
the 1968 Republican nomination and victory in the general
election. Moving over to the White House speechwriting shop
after the inauguration, he quickly became the "go-to" guy for
the quick riposte or snappy put-down for the Administration's
liberal press critics.

Assigned to sharpen Vice President Spiro Agnew's role
as "attack dog" for the 1970 mid-term elections, he wrote
Agnew's memorable "Nattering Nabobs of Negativism" speech,
which enraged "The Chattering Classes" (yet another Safirism).

Hired away after the 1972 elections by New York Times publisher
Arthur Sulzberger, the intent was to set "a hawk among the doves".

But, aware of the growing Watergate scandal, his new
colleagues were slow to accept him. They need not have feared.

Once the full extent of Nixon's involvement in the scandal
became known, Mr. Safire's conservative voice was among
those that persuaded the country that Nixon had to go.

Safire's Watergate experience was to stand him in good
stead three years later when, through a combination of
well-crafted opinion and solid investigative reporting, he
brought about the resignation of Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter's
ethically-challenged banker pal turned Budget Director.

This effort won Safire the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Though his columns were often painfully sharp, he was never
mean. He was as quick to skewer complacent conservatives as
he was self-righteous liberals. And he called it as he saw it.

During the 1993 battle over Hillarycare, he called Hillary
Clinton a "liar" in print when her public pronouncements on
health care contradicted leaked White House documents in
his possession.

This prompted President Clinton to say that if he weren't
President, his fist would find a resting place on the bridge of
Mr. Safire's nose.

To which Bill Safire replied, "well, at least he didn't split
an infinitive."

Sharp, witty, and always contemporary, he and others
such as Robert Novak and William Buckley were among
the last of the old-school principled conservative columnists,
bringing both elegance and erudition to an often- derided
portion of the opinion spectrum.

He will be missed.

No comments:

Post a Comment