Sunday, September 27, 2009

William Safire — 1929-2009

William Safire, the man who made Spiro Agnew and “nattering nabobs of negativism” household words has died.

There may be many sides in a genteel debate, but in the Safire world of politics and journalism it was simpler: there was his own unambiguous wit and wisdom on one hand and, on the other, the blubber of fools he called “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

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 that drove the president from office.

Then, from 1973 to 2005, Mr. Safire wrote his twice weekly “Essay” for the Op-Ed Page of The Times, a forceful conservative voice in the liberal chorus. Unlike most Washington columnists who offer judgments with Olympian detachment, Mr. Safire was a pugnacious contrarian who did much of his own reporting, called people liars in print and laced his opinions with outrageous wordplay.

[…]

And from 1979 until earlier this month, he wrote “On Language,” a New York Times Magazine column that explored written and oral trends, plumbed the origins and meanings of words and phrases, and drew a devoted following, including a stable of correspondents he called his Lexicographic Irregulars.

The columns, many collected in books, made him an unofficial arbiter of usage, and one of the most widely read writers on language. It also tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns, like “The President’s populism and the First Lady’s momulism.”

There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphamisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid cliches like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

I rarely agreed with his politics, and I often enjoyed taking apart his punditry here on this blog, knowing full well I could never be equal to him in his use of the language. I admired him for his self-deprecating wit if not for his opinions, and when he “Never Retired” from the Times, I was sorry to see him go, especially when they filled his slot with someone who wasn’t worthy of shining his scuffed shoes. (And why do I get the sneaking suspicion that he had a very fine hand in writing his own obituary?)

Mr. Safire won his Pulitzer for columns that accused President Jimmy Carter’s budget director, Bert Lance, of shady financial dealings. Mr. Lance resigned, but was acquitted in a trial. He then befriended his accuser.

Years later, Mr. Safire called Hillary Clinton a “congenital liar” in print. Mrs. Clinton said she was offended only for her mother’s sake. But a White House aide said that Bill Clinton, “if he were not president, would have delivered a more forceful response on the bridge of Mr. Safire’s nose.”

Mr. Safire was delighted, especially with the proper use of the conditional.

Rest in peace, Mr. Safire, and thanks for making me and a lot of other writers, liberal and conservative, appreciate the craft of writing.