William Safire, his voice uncommonly soft for a newspaper columnist, is talking about his former boss, President Nixon. Except that not once but twice, he calls him President Lincoln.

It's not hard to understand, of course. Safire has spent his spare time ("No golf, no tennis") the last nine years writing a novel about Lincoln. "Freedom," as the epic is called, has just arrived in the nation's bookstores -- 1,123 pages that deal with Honest Abe during his not altogether honest first 20 months in the White House.

Still, listening to Safire in his New York Times office, a large comfortable place where old books nestle incongruously against a bank of computer equipment, one senses that these slips of the tongue are not the result of some momentary confusion.

History has defined Lincoln as a wise president with a few understandable flaws. For Safire, there has always been a question why the president for whom he wrote speeches from 1969 to 1973 is being judged as a flawed president with a little accidental wisdom. As Safire's longtime friend Daniel Schorr sees it: "I think Bill found solace in studying the life of Lincoln and finding out that Lincoln could also do unilateral things, things that were not altogether legal but were for a higher purpose."

At Lincoln's point in time, the president's men did more than bug reporters' telephones. Lincoln arrested a war correspondent who came back from the front, gave a report to the president and then planned to write about how distraught and unhappy he had found the man in the Oval Office.

Break-in at the headquarters of the political opposition? For Lincoln that would have been no big deal. About 100 years before Nixon's men were invading the Watergate, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus -- that hallowed protection against unlawful imprisonment. Thousands were locked up at one time or another for various degrees of suspected disloyalty to Lincoln's policies.

"I think that's criticizable," says Safire, an expert on language who would probably pounce on anybody else for using such a word. "Rarely does anybody criticize the president -- President Lincoln -- for his excesses, for cracking down on dissent and cracking down on the press."

But if Safire is criticizing him, he also decided somewhere in the long process of writing this book that Lincoln's unseemly means were more admirable than Nixon's in Watergate or even Ronald Reagan's in the Iran-contra scandal. And Lincoln had a purpose aimed at a more understandable end -- the preservation of the Union. For Safire, the saving of the republic was a goal worthy of abusing some of the Union's basic democratic principles.

"If he were running today, I'd vote for him," says Safire. "I think he had his priorities straight."

Straight priorities mean having a core of beliefs that are worth all the harassment and trouble that come with leadership. It is true for presidents, and it has to be true for their critics like William Lewis Safire. A registered Republican who defines himself politically as a Libertarian conservative, Safire at 57 has become the most thoughtful conservative essayist in the country.

His columns twice a week in The Times are often at the top of a large heap of required reading for the politically attuned around the country. Even people who hate his conclusions still love his column.

His Sunday column on language generates more than 15,000 letters per year, setting forth arguments on the roots of our modern idiom much like those that once graced the letters page of The Times of London.

His speeches bring him $18,000 apiece. His recent books (this is the ninth) have hit the jackpot (the first printing on this one is 150,000). And most of the people who had nothing but criticism for The Times when he was hired in 1973 as the token conservative on the op-ed page have decided that maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after all.

"There was lots of outrage," says Jack Rosenthal, editorial page editor of The Times. "Not so much because he was a conservative voice in this leading temple of the eastern liberal establishment, but that he had been a hired gun for the Nixon administration. They thought he was just a shill."

The thought did not dissipate immediately. In the first year, there were some clunkers, Rosenthal remembers. But eventually he became known for his "kind of curmudgeonly integrity," he says.

What has mostly surprised and delighted the nonbelievers has been Safire's tendency to take on the powerful whether they be political foes, allies or even personal friends. His targets have included former Carter administration budget director Bert Lance and Billy Carter, Reagan friend Michael Deaver and the most powerful of all, Nancy Reagan.

The late CIA director William Casey was a longtime ally from the days when Safire worked for Nixon in 1960 and helped on Casey's unsuccessful congressional campaign in New York in 1966. And yet Safire had so angered Casey late last year that the two were barely speaking. When Casey got word that Safire was asking some tough questions about the CIA regarding the Iran arms scandal, Casey called Safire three times at home. On a Sunday.

Safire wrote the column that day and recalls "pulling my punches" somewhat on Casey because of the repeated phone calls. Still, there were punches that went unpulled. As Safire said in that Monday's paper: "It struck more than one of his former friends that power and secrecy had corrupted Big Bill."

"I got a phone call that afternoon from a quasi-friend or a mutual friend," recalls Safire. "He said for me not to worry. Casey didn't have the seizure until at least an hour after he read my column.

"It was a joke, from somebody with a fairly macabre sense of humor."

It was also one of the few cases when his political friends felt that Safire came closest to breaking his primary rule for the column, which is, as he put it in a recent interview: "I believe in knocking somebody when they're up."

Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, Lance, Deaver -- they are or were fair game for Safire, who knows full well that the pen can be mightier than the White House pass. Carter's press secretary Jody Powell recalled that when he left the White House to start a column, Safire wrote him a note that said: "No more the trappings of power, just the real thing."

But if Safire makes enemies easily, he has trouble keeping them.

What is strange is how many of those who suffer the scaldings from Safire's hot copy often find themselves counted later among the columnist's warmest friends. Kissinger, who is blamed for having Safire's phone tapped while Safire was in the White House, has been denounced by the columnist almost annually. The same Henry Kissinger is giving Safire a book party at his apartment in New York. Bert Lance -- Safire won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his scathing denunciations of Lance -- and he are friends now, he says.

David Halberstam, archangel of New York's literary liberals, wrote a letter to New York Times Publisher Arthur O. (Punch) Sulzberger shortly after Safire was hired by The Times. The letter said in part: "Safire is not a conservative in any true sense . . . rather he is a paid manipulator . . . It's a lousy column and it's a dishonest one. So close it. Or you end up just as shabby as Safire."

Says Safire: "I got a nice note from Halberstam recently. He said he was wrong and he was glad to admit it. It was a gracious note."

One theory is that Safire, who was president of his own public relations firm from 1960-68, never strayed too far from the business. New Republic Editor Michael Kinsley called Safire a "bully" in 1984 for publishing items from tapes made by USIA Director Charles Wick of phone conversations and accused him of knowing how to hype a story and keep it hyped. As Kinsley said in one aside: "My own theory is that Safire is simply a good PR man."

But Safire's friends say that he knows the art of friendship in a way most successful New Yorkers and Washingtonians have long forgotten.

Longtime Democrat Frank Mankiewicz recalled recently that during the 1972 presidential race, he and Safire engaged in dueling opinion pieces in The Washington Post -- Safire from Nixon's point of view, Mankiewicz from George McGovern's.

"We had at each other with great glee, and it was quite savage," Mankiewicz said. "We were both in full cry."

"When the election was over, Bill did a nice thing. He sent me a note and referred to those wonderful lines of Auden's -- 'Time, that is intolerant of the brave and innocent, and indifferent in a week to a beautiful physique, worships language and forgives everyone by whom it lives,' " he remembered.

"The day after the 1972 election, that was a nice thing to get," Mankiewicz said.

Shortly after that, Safire left the White House and began writing a book about Nixon for Morrow. As Mankiewicz puts it, "By the time he delivers the manuscript, Nixon has disgraced himself. {Morrow} not only refuses to pay for the book but they wanted the advance back, on the grounds that it was a bad manuscript.

"It must have been a fairly low point for Bill -- it seemed to me that it was quite obvious there wasn't any market anymore for a book celebrating the Nixon administration. So I called Bill up and said, 'Do you need any help here?' "

Safire, who also remembers that period less than fondly, sent over the manuscript. Mankiewicz said he thought it was terrific -- though he disagreed with everything in it. He accompanied Safire to arbitration sessions, "and mostly what I did was that for two days I sat there looking very ominous." The upshot was that Safire got to keep his advance from Morrow and Doubleday published the manuscript under the title "Before the Fall."

Not all former targets have declared a truce. Michael Deaver's brother Bill says he believes Safire has been unfair for years, starting with Safire's criticism of Deaver's writing a diet book while in the White House.

"He wrote a book while he was in the White House," Bill Deaver says of Safire. Safire sees no comparison. His agent did not even begin looking for a publisher until his departure from the White House was announced.

Another former target from the Reagan administration, former national security adviser William Clark, still has not been swept into the Safire circle.

According to those who worked in the White House during the first years of the Reagan administration, Safire had trouble getting Clark to return his phone calls so he told Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger that he was "going after" Clark. Weinberger reportedly told Safire that was not the way to go about it with Clark, who was deputy secretary of state at the time.

Clark, who is now practicing international law with former secretary of state William Rogers, was asked about whether such an event took place. He said: "I can confirm that the information reached me and that I saw no reason to call Mr. Safire. As for whether he was fair or unfair, I have no recollection."

Others recall that Clark seemed to remain a Safire target long after other critics had forgiven him for being a newcomer to the national security business -- "miscast," "inexperienced," "a living example that still waters could run shallow" are among the descriptions.

"It could be one of these 'Rashomon' things -- somebody told something to somebody else and the results sounded different," Safire says now.

"I would never threaten anybody, 'if you don't return my call I would zap you,' because that would be stupid," he says. "But, there's no doubt that not returning calls in my mind is evidence of being either fearful of calling back or contemptuous. I don't buy that they're too busy."

For those who are his friends, Safire's loyalty is legend. They sometimes cite his support of the late Roy Cohn, whom he befriended after he wrote a story about Cohn for the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate in 1949. As Safire said in a column last year: "Being a friend of Roy's was a lifelong roller coaster ride."

Cohn had been making enemies, and creating controversy, since the days of his association with Sen. Joseph McCarthy. What angered Safire was that Cohn was disbarred in New York shortly before he died of complications from AIDS. In his columns he labeled the proceedings a "late hit" and a "ghoulish pursuit." He called the head of the panel "Torquemada," and his outrage brought a torrent of angry letters to The Times from people who believed Safire had distorted the facts to support a man unworthy of such a defense.

"He never denied their friendship," says ABC's Barbara Walters, another Cohn friend who also has been a friend of Safire since she worked for him at Tex McCrary's broadcasting and public relations operations in New York in the 1950s. "A lot of people were friendly with Roy and used Roy who never admitted they knew him. A great many people starting with the president {Reagan} on down were friends of Roy."

Says Safire: "I thought he abused civil liberties {on McCarthy's committee} and I told him so at the time . . . But over the years, when he needed me I was there; when I needed him he was there."

Asked to explain this arrangement, Safire said: "I would go to a big gathering of his in New York or something and I would get up and say, 'I'm here because I like unpopular causes.' And that would get a laugh and a lot of people who were uncomfortable about it being publicized felt better. That's what I could do for him."

He did not want to talk about Cohn's way of reciprocating except to say that "whenever I wanted to run something past him he would have really sound judgment, like in politics, what about this guy, what about that guy?"

But standing by people when they're down is merely proof of friendship for Safire, who has known and lived in a society where the big test of friendship seems too often to be whether it is convenient.

"I think the great riches in a man's life are his friends, and you stick by them and they stick by you," he says. "And nobody's perfect. Everybody has the sharp edges knocked off in the course of life."

Friends and members of Safire's family say that Bill Safire's edges took their first knock at age 4 when his father, who had been a successful thread manufacturer, died of cancer.

"It was a very terrible death," says William's brother Leonard. "We all had to live with it, but he was the youngest and he must have been the most deprived."

Safire's mother, described by Leonard as "indomitable," picked up her three boys -- Bill, Leonard and the oldest, Marshall -- and moved to California. Her husband had set up a fund for the family before he died, and there was a monthly check. She was able to spend her time with the children, and the family lived in what they describe now as a decent neighborhood.

"It wasn't poverty exactly, but it was close to it," says Leonard. "She would sit on the edge of the chair and wait for the check. If it didn't come, we were dead."

In the next few years, the family would move back and forth between New York City and California. Safire, bright and likable, went to Bronx High School of Science, one of New York's most elite, and started at Syracuse University in 1947 on a scholarship. There he ran a radio show, following in the footsteps of brother Leonard, who was also showing an early interest in journalism. Bill's efforts included "Meet the Prof" and a documentary on the opening of trout season in Onondaga County, which he says was not a boondoggle.

In the summer of 1949, Safire went to work for McCrary and Jinx Falkenberg, whose ventures included a column for the New York Herald Tribune called "New York Closeup." As a result, William Safire is not a college graduate; he did not go back to Syracuse until he gave the commencement address after he won the Pulitzer in 1978.

Instead, Safire took his lessons in politics, public relations and journalism at the McCrary school for legmen and women -- an operation that included not only Safire and Walters but also book agent Bill Adler and Ted Yates, an NBC producer who was killed in Israel.

McCrary says now of Safire, whom he describes as "one of his kids," that he "learned to use words." "He learned to write for people who follow with their finger and read with their lips moving. He remembered that the adjective is the mortal enemy of the noun. He always writes lean and mean. He learned that, and {columnist William} Buckley did not."

After two years in the Army, he returned to Tex and Jinx, ultimately becoming a vice president for McCrary's firm. It was during this period that he changed his name from Safir to Safire, because, as he puts it, "I got tired of people calling saying 'safer,' 'saffer' or 'zephyr.' We always pronounced it Safire."

"We had a big family conference about 30 years ago," says brother Leonard. "My older brother and I are traditionalists, but he decided to put the 'e', and he has benefited from it. All our lives we have been called 'say-fur,' and since then, he has been called Safire."

More important for Safire's future than the pronunciation of his name was the way he engineered a little extra publicity for one of his clients in this period: a home-building firm that had a display at the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

There, Safire performed his most famous PR stunt, maneuvering Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev into the all-American house for their famous "kitchen debate." Safire took the AP picture that records the event, and what developed was the beginning of an important friendship for both Nixon and Safire.

In 1961, after helping Nixon in his unsuccessful campaign against John Kennedy, Safire started his own PR firm, where his clients ranged from Good Humor to Ex-Lax to such political candidates as Sen. Jacob Javits, William Casey, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay, who was then a Republican.

"We had a wonderful time," says Leonard, who worked with Safire and remembers the successes as well as some of the lesser moments. "We created the idea of the Good Humor girl, but it didn't jell." (The whole family talks this way. If the Kennedys competed in touch football, the Safirs/Safires knock heads over words. Anything for a little good, clean pun.)

In 1962, a London beauty named Helene Belmar Julius came to New York to visit her sister. Trained as a classical pianist at the Royal College of Music, she had decided that being a pianist was a lonely job and "so I let it slide and started modeling."

On that trip, her sister's boyfriend introduced her to this quiet man who was full of wit and mischief. "It was love at first sight. We got engaged two weeks after that and we had a lovely white wedding in London about two months later."

There are two children: Daughter Annabel, 21, is studying graphic arts at Montgomery College, and son Mark, 23, just graduated from Brown University. They are a close family who open their doors on Jewish holidays to an affectionate, informal larger family of close friends. "In a time when people would not make a point of that, he does," says Barbara Walters. "People tend to lose that when they get in other circles. Sometimes the family, sometimes the old friends go, or the religion goes, but not for him."

Mark Safire is ranked as a computer whiz by his father because he helped set up a computer program for the Lincoln novel. "The first draft I wrote like a normal human being on a typewriter," says Safire, who acknowledges that the second draft was made easier by several technological generations and one human one.

With grown-up kids, Helene Safire said she thrashed around for a while looking for something worthy to do. She studied philosophy, "but, I didn't feel it was mine. I was either agreeing or disagreeing with someone else. I wanted to do something that was just mine, that I could hold out my hand and say, 'Look, this is what I did.' "

Seven years ago she tried her hand at making jewelry, adapting some of the knowledge from her father's business as the owner of an antique jewelry store in Piccadilly. Now her work goes for anywhere from $150 to several thousand dollars per piece, and she runs a nice little business called Helene Safire, Ltd., "although I hate to think I'm limited," she says, laughing.

The midlife pirouette from mother to businesswoman seems fitting for the mate of Bill Safire, whose life took its real swing upward when he went from politics to journalism at age 44. He left the Nixon White House, having created such memorable phrases as "nattering nabobs of negativism" -- a criticism of the media attributed to Spiro Agnew.

After his departure and while he was talking to editors of The Washington Post about a job, Safire said he was seated at a dinner next to New York Times publisher Sulzberger, who said, "Why are you talking to The Post? Why don't you come talk to us?"

More rapidly than most expected, Safire became a part of The Times establishment.

One turning point came shortly after he became a columnist and watched the White House as Nixon seemed to be making grave errors in cutting himself off from the press and the rest of the world.

"I went to the Century Club with Abe Rosenthal {former executive editor of The Times} and said, 'I wish I could advise the president privately about what he should do, like send him a memo or something,' " Safire recalls. "Rosenthal said, 'You're a newspaperman now, you've got space. There's no reason you can't do it here. He'll read it. He'll get it.' "

The second revelation came shortly afterward -- when Safire learned that Kissinger had his phone tapped at the White House. Haig had taken the order to the FBI, and as Safire puts it now: "Haig never left the room without raising his hand and getting Kissinger's approval."

"The fact that Bill's telephone was tapped made him see the light very quickly," says A.M. Rosenthal, now a Times columnist. "Whoever ordered the tapping can be thanked for that."

Rosenthal also said that Safire was accepted more rapidly at the paper than expected because "he's a sharer. When I was editor, some columnists would help reporters and share ideas. He was one of those . . . There are people who do what they're paid to do and then kind of stand aloof like birds on a telephone wire. He doesn't."

Has the change at The Times -- with Max Frankel replacing Rosenthal -- changed The Times? Says Safire: "It's too soon to tell."

Such an answer might not make his managers happy -- news executives prefer enthusiastic boosting of whoever's in charge and whatever they're doing -- but it is typical of Safire and his column. There's not too much room for awe, especially for those who might expect it.

In fact, what has happened to Safire in some ways argues against the old code that only a lifetime journalist can be a good journalist. The years in public relations and the White House seem to have given him an ear for sour notes on both sides -- among those in power in government and those in power in the press.

So, readers seem to sense that he has mostly worked things out for himself. After investigating the story, he sits down and listens to orders -- not from bosses or friends or political allies, but from somewhere deep inside.

There are echoes of Lincoln there, at least of Safire's Lincoln.