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."The Early Years
He was born William L. Safir (the "e" was added later) in New York City on Dec. 17, 1929. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, he enrolled at Syracuse University but dropped out after his sophomore year for financial reasons. At age 19, he caught on as a researcher and writer for New York Herald Tribune columnist Tex McCrary. He interviewed socialites, politicians and celebrities, including Mae West.
After working as a roving correspondent in Europe and the Middle East for WNBC radio and television, he was inducted into the Army, for which he did public relations work. He made a name for himself by persuading NBC to televise nationally a Fourth of July ceremony awarding military decorations. He also arranged to have the ceremony at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, with a Navy aircraft carrier cruising in the background.
Returning to NBC in 1954, he produced the "Tex and Jinx" radio and TV shows, featuring McCrary and his wife Jinx Falkenburg. In 1955, he was named a vice president of Tex McCrary Inc., a public relations firm whose clients included the construction company that built the "typical American house" for the American National Exhibition in Moscow.
Then-Vice President Nixon officially opened the exhibition July 24, 1959. Mr. Safire was able to corral Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev in the kitchen showroom, where Nixon provoked the famous "kitchen debate" on the relative merits of capitalism and communism.
An Associated Press photographer, blocked by the crowd, tossed his camera to Mr. Safire over the heads of astonished Soviet guards, and the publicist snapped the famous photo of the two men engaged in their debate. The photo would be used to buttress Nixon's reputation as a tough "cold warrior" in his unsuccessful 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee that year.
After working for the Nixon-Lodge campaign in 1960, Mr. Safire established his own public relations firm in 1961, with clients ranging from an ice cream company to a laxative manufacturer.
He also took part in the campaigns of some prominent New York Republicans: Sen. Jacob K. Javits's run for reelection in 1962; Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller's unsuccessful run for president in 1964; and John V. Lindsay's successful run for New York City mayor in 1965.
In the wake of the 1964 presidential election, Mr. Safire began look toward the 1968 campaign, and he volunteered his services as an unpaid speechwriter on behalf of Nixon, who at the time had a law office in New York. Nixon assigned Mr. Safire to help Patrick J. Buchanan write Nixon's syndicated newspaper column.
For the 1968 campaign, Mr. Safire wrote Nixon's "new alignment" speech in which the candidate affirmed his belief that "the Republicans, the new liberals, the new South, [and] the black militants are talking the same language." After Nixon's election on Nov. 5, 1968, he wrote the president-elect's victory speech, which included the major objectives of the new administration and declared the president's determination "to bring the American people together."
In February 1969, he moved into the White House as special assistant to the president, working under former Time executive editor James Keogh and as part of a speechwriting team that included Buchanan and Raymond K. Price Jr. In a 1969 article, the New York Times described Mr. Safire as "the word factory's resident pro for zingers and snappers."
In 1970, Mr. Safire was detached from the president's staff to write speeches for the vice president, including the famous blasts against the "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "hysterical hypochondriacs."
He continued writing his twice-weekly political column until 2005, his "On Language" column until this month. His books included works on politics and four novels.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, the former Helene Belmar Julius of Chevy Chase; two children, Mark Safire of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., and Annabelle Safire of Rockville; and a granddaughter.