William Safire, a speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon and a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for The New York Times who also wrote novels, books on politics and a Malaprop’s treasury of articles on language, died at a hospice in Rockville, Md., on Sunday. He was 79.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Martin Tolchin, a friend of the family.
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, which drove the president from office.
Then, from 1973 to 2005, 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, Safire was a pugnacious contrarian who did much of his own reporting, called people liars in print and laced his opinions with outrageous wordplay.
Critics initially dismissed him as an apologist for the disgraced Nixon coterie. But he won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and for 32 years tenaciously attacked and defended foreign and domestic policies, and the foibles, of seven administrations. Along the way, he incurred enmity and admiration, and made a lot of powerful people squirm.
Safire also wrote four novels, including “Full Disclosure” (Doubleday, 1977), a best-seller about succession issues after a president is blinded in an assassination attempt, and nonfiction that included “The New Language of Politics” (Random House, 1968), and “Before the Fall” (Doubleday, 1975), a memoir of his White House years.
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 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,” written during the Carter presidency.
There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, 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!!