When William Safire left the Nixon White House to hold forth on the op-ed page of the New York Times, many readers reacted with disbelief, as if an intruder were defiling their liberal temple.
After three decades, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist has become a comfortable fixture at the paper, a must-read even for those who disagree with his conservative views.
Safire, 74, said yesterday he is giving up the column in January. "It's time to leave when you're still hitting the long ball and have something else you want to do," he said. Safire said he told Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. last year that the 2004 campaign would be his "last hurrah" and that Sulzberger "expressed the proper dismay" but urged him not to give up his "On Language" column. Safire will continue that idiosyncratic column for the paper's Sunday magazine.
"There was a day when you read columnists because they were insiders," Times Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins said. "People read newer columnists for a very distinct voice and very distinct opinions. He was a combination of those things. . . . He was an absolute institution here."
Conservative author William Bennett called Safire "a giant and an independent thinker" who is "never anybody else's guy." Bennett said that when he was the federal drug czar under President Reagan, he often dealt with Safire and that the columnist "is a guy you can really have a conversation with."
The Chevy Chase resident, a self-described libertarian conservative, has specialized in what he calls opinionated reporting. During the Carter administration, he won the Pulitzer Prize for columns on financial improprieties by White House budget director Bert Lance, with whom Safire has since become friends. In the Reagan administration, he broke the story that Charles Z. Wick, who ran the U.S. Information Agency, was secretly taping telephone conversations.
"I'm willing to zap conservatives when they do things that are not libertarian," Safire said. After the 9/11 attacks, "I was the first to really go after George W. on his treatment of prisoners," accusing the president of assuming "dictatorial power." "All my conservative friends were horrified," reacting with a " 'How-could-you-do-this-to-us.' The wonderful thing about being a New York Times columnist is that it's like a Supreme Court appointment -- they're stuck with you for a long time."
Safire was "an apostate once," abandoning the first President Bush to vote for Bill Clinton in 1992. But Safire later soured on the 42nd president, and when he called Hillary Rodham Clinton a "congenital liar," her husband said he wanted to punch the columnist in the nose.
"I always thought highly of him until the last year or so," said liberal blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, who has challenged Safire columns contending there were links between 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Marshall said he thought Safire was either being dishonest or guilty of "great sloppiness."
Safire was a New York publicist who helped stage the Moscow "kitchen debate" between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 that helped show off a homebuilder client's kitchen. Two years after joining Nixon's staff during the 1968 campaign, he wrote one of the most famous slams against journalists -- calling them "nattering nabobs of negativism" -- in a speech for Vice President Spiro Agnew.
When Safire joined the Times Washington bureau in 1973 -- after turning down a similar offer from The Washington Post -- "there was a certain built-in hostility here," he said. Referring to then-Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Sr., Safire said that "Punch was under terrific criticism for hiring a Nixon flack, particularly during Watergate," which erupted into a full-fledged scandal a week after Safire left Nixon's staff.
The ice melted after a company picnic at which a staffer's child fell into the pool and "my wife pushed me in" to rescue the child. "All of a sudden I was a hero."
Safire said the late columnist Stewart Alsop offered advice on the art of writing, including "Never sell out, except for a really good anecdote." Safire's passion on privacy and civil liberties issues stems from his discovery that Nixon had him wiretapped during his White House tenure.
"To him, there is nothing more important than personal loyalty," said Daniel Schorr, the former CBS correspondent who dealt with Safire as a Nixon aide and later became a regular at his Passover seders. In 1976, when CBS founder William Paley suspended Schorr over his leaking of a report on CIA misconduct to another news organization, Safire insisted on writing a column about it. "He said, 'That's terrible, let me zap him,' " Schorr recalled. "He loves the word zapped."
Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman said Safire "is one of the people I tried to model myself after. Bill never stopped reporting." He described Safire as an "avuncular" colleague and said despite their ideological differences, "politics always stopped at his office door."
A prolific author and novelist, Safire plans to become the full-time chief executive of the Dana Foundation, a philanthropic organization interested in brain research and immunology, where he has been chairman for four years. "I'll wake up some mornings and say 'Gee, I've got a great column in me,' but I'll have to bite it back," Safire said.