William Safire died yesterday at 79. The former Nixon speechwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist was as famous for being the country's leading language maven as much as for his conservative opinions. Columnists remember their "pugnacious" colleague.
- 'How to Read a Column.' The New York Times published this classic Safire column from 2005, in which he offered some words of warning to his readers about pundits and their many tricks. "Fledgling columnists, eager to impress readers with their grasp of journalistic jargon, are drawn to such arcane spellings as 'lede,' he wrote. "Where they lede, do not follow."
He was a college dropout and proud of it, a public relations go-getter who set up the famous Nixon-Khrushchev "kitchen debate" in Moscow, and a White House wordsmith in the tumultuous era of war in Vietnam, Nixon's visit to China and the gathering storm of the Watergate scandal, which drove the president from office.
- Leslie H. Gelb, Forbes: "He loved politics, but he also loved words. He made language his other love in life, after politics. Or perhaps he put it before politics. I don't know. His language columns and books were a model of civility and learning."
- The Washington Post: Safire was a "language maven."
- Commentary: "The first professional Republican ideologue of his time to become a mainstream fixture in journalism," writes John Podhoretz. "He was a patriot, an American nationalist, a Zionist, a civil libertarian, and a classic Washington type of a sort that has now almost entirely passed from the scene."
- The Nation: Safire was a believer in fair debate, says John Nichols. "Safire believed that, in a fair debate, conservative ideas would prevail. I believed that, in a fair debate, progressive ideas would prevail. What we shared was a faith in the value of that fair debate, and a recognition that it can only occur when the media has many different owners -- and many distinct and dissenting voices."
- The Wall Street Journal: "A competitor who had our back when we needed him." The Journal says Safire was one of a kind.
Unlike many columnists, Safire did not soar at 35,000 feet bemoaning what fools these mortals be. He did his own reporting, digging up stories and anecdotes that embarrassed politicians who deserved to be embarrassed. He was a master of his craft, a student of the English language who loved the playful use of words."