Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the outcome of federal charges against former Carter White House budget director Bert Lance, who was accused of irregular banking practices in Georgia. A federal jury acquitted Lance of nine counts but deadlocked on three others, and prosecutors decided against a retrial.

William Safire, 79; Celebrated Columnist for N.Y. Times

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

William Safire, 79, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and language maven for the New York Times, whose penchant for the barbed and memorable phrase first manifested itself in speeches he wrote for the Nixon White House, died Sept. 27 at Casey House, part of Montgomery Hospice in Rockville. A longtime friend and former colleague, Martin Tolchin, said Mr. Safire had pancreatic cancer.

For more than three decades, Mr. Safire wrote twice weekly as the resident conservative columnist on the Times op-ed page. He also wrote the popular "On Language" column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, exploring grammar, usage and the origin of words. The column led to the publication of more than a dozen books about words and language.

He arrived at the Times in 1973, fresh from his stint as a senior White House speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon. His catchy turns of phrase often outlived the context in which they were delivered. Perhaps the most memorable was the acidic and alliterative putdown he crafted for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to describe those in the press who opposed the Vietnam war. They were, Agnew said, "nattering nabobs of negativism."

Mr. Safire acknowledged in his inaugural column that his new role as a columnist sparked dismay among erstwhile colleagues.

"When word spread like cooling lava through the Nixon Administration that I was to become a columnist for the New York Times," he wrote on April 15, 1973, "speechwriters who stayed behind wanted to know: 'Will you continue to stand up for the President, the work ethic and the Nixon doctrine, or will you sell out to the elitist establishment and become a darling of the Georgetown cocktail party set?'"

Mr. Safire, who puckishly assured his readers that he never ducked the tough questions, said that his answer to both questions was "yes and no." He encouraged his readers "to watch this space for further development."

Zapping Conservatives

His new colleagues in the Washington bureau of the Times also were suspicious -- even a little hostile, said Tolchin, a former Times colleague. "They all thought that if there was to be a new column in the Times, they should be the one to write it," he recalled.

The hostility disappeared at a party for the bureau when, as Tolchin recalled, the small son of reporter James Naughton fell into a swimming pool and a fully clothed Mr. Safire dived in to rescue him. "From that moment on, Bill was fully accepted by the bureau," Tolchin said.

Witty, playful and always provocative, Mr. Safire quickly developed a voice of his own. In the words of William Greider, writing in The Washington Post in 1977, he was "a gaudy flame on display in a gray museum." Although his early columns defended Nixon against charges arising from Watergate, Mr. Safire became less ardent after he learned about the White House taping system.

Mr. Safire won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1978 for his columns on the financial affairs of Carter White House budget director Bert Lance, who was accused of irregular banking practices in Georgia. Lance resigned but was acquitted of nine counts by a federal jury, which was deadlocked on three others. He and Mr. Safire later became friends.

In the Reagan administration, he reported that Charles Z. Wick, head of the U.S. Information Agency, was secretly taping phone conversations.

"I'm willing to zap conservatives when they do things that are not libertarian," Mr. Safire told The Post in 2004. "I was the first to really go after George W. on his treatment of prisoners. . . . 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."

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