William Safire: A Wordsmith Of Consequence

Conservatives and quite a few  liberals were saddened to learn of the death of William Safire on September 27th at age 79.  Although he occasionally provoked anger from readers — especially conservatives when they felt he deviated from the right–the New York Times columnist and onetime Nixon speechwriter was almost universally respected for his mastery of the printed and word and ability to mobilize language into provocative thought

Safire’s lifelong romance with words began with his own name:  born to a family whose name was “Safir”, which the New Yorker later edited slightly to “Safire” (easier to pronounce, he explained, although his brother and other relatives maintained the original spelling).  After attending Syracuse University for two years, the young Safire dropped out and served a stint in the U.S. Army.  He became a print correspondent while in uniform and, following his discharge, Safire went into radio and television production.  From 1955-60, he was a public relations man, with clients ranging from Ex-Lax to the homebuilder whose model home was at the American trade exhibit in Moscow where then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Russian Premier Nikita Khruschev had their celebrated “kitchen debate” in 1959.

It was Nixon who brought the young Safire in politics.  He worked on the Republican’s losing 1960 presidential campaign and later on his triumphant campaign in ’68.  During the years in between, Safire returned to corporate public relations and also gave p.r. assistance  to a number of Republicans not exactly embraced by the right:  Nelson Rockefeller in his presidential campaign of 1964, John Lindsay in his winning race for mayor of New York in 1965, and Claude Kirk in his bid for governor of Florida in 1966.

Along with the Price and the young Pat Buchanan, Safire filled out the speechwriting team in the White House.  He also wrote some of the hard-hitting speeches by Vice President Spiro Agnew firing upon the media and liberal Democrats in the 1970 midterm election campaigns.

In spite of Safire’s association with Nixon and Agnew, the New York Times hired him as a political columnist in 1973.  Until his retirement 32 years later, self-styled “libertarian conservative” Safire regularly delighted and outraged readers across the political spectrum with his often unpredictable takes on politics.  His commentary on Jimmy Carter’s Office of Management and Budget Director Bert Lance and the troubles that led to his resignation in 1978 earned Safire a Pulitzer Prize.  He usually praised Ronald Reagan but in a coyly-written 1992 column, he criticized then-President George H.W. Bush and all but said he was voting for Bill Clinton.  A few years into the Clinton Administration, Safire branded First Lady Hillary Clinton “a congenital liar.”  He backed the U.S. invasion in Iraq and pasted George W. Bush for alleged mistreatment of prisoners.  In 2006, Bush awarded Safire the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Safire’s dry humor and mastery of words became even more familiar through appearances on such television forums as NBC’s "Meet the Press" and ABC’s "Nightline".   
But his passion was always the printed word and, along with his Times columns, Safire produced four novels, two books on language, a collection of great speeches, two books of advice, and four studies of politics (including the oft-cited Safire’s Political Dictionary).

And while he never got a degree from Syracuse, his alma mater invited Safire to deliver two commencement addresses and to serve on its Board of Trustees.

In his long and versatile career, Safire could alternatively delight and outrage his legions of readers.  But even his most critical reader would agree that his love of language and the charm with which he crafted it made his works worth reading and discussing.  In that sense, Bill Safire was, first and foremost, a wordsmith of consequence.