William Safire: Pundit, Provocateur, Penman

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Alex Gotfryd / Corbis

William Safire in 1975

William Safire, who died on Sept. 27 of pancreatic cancer at age 79, was for 32 years a standard bearer of what he called "libertarian conservatism" in the otherwise mainly predictably liberal Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. A former public-relations executive who claimed to have staged the famous 1959 "kitchen debate" in Moscow between then Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on the merits of capitalism and communism, Safire went on to work in the White House as a speechwriter, before starting a career as a wordsmith at the Times. And a wordsmith he was: in addition to his columns, Safire also penned (a verb I suspect he would have hated) the On Language page in the New York Times Magazine, continuing to write it until shortly before he died. For those of us who love to know where a word or phrase comes from, how its meaning and usage has changed and what verbal construction is now permissible (and what is not), On Language was a consistent delight.

Safire was always keen to stress the libertarian part of his political belief, which led him into interesting waters. He was a longtime adversary of Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of Singapore and a man much admired by un-adjectivally qualified conservatives, for what he saw as Lee's illiberal tendencies toward the press and opponents. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 1999, Safire had a long interview with Lee, which was posted online. It's still worth reading as an example of two first-class minds going at it hammer and tongs. He was critical, too, of some of the laws and policies that were adopted in the wake of 9/11, believing they too easily sacrificed civil liberty at the altar of national security and its supposed imperatives.

But that libertarian thing was, when all is said and done, just an adjective; Safire was a true conservative, and a partisan one too, biffing in print, and not always fairly, political opponents from Bert Lance to Hillary Clinton. He was a cheerleader for some of the more outlandish justifications for the Iraq war, like the supposed link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, though commentators like David Corn — a former Washington editor of the Nation — delighted in pointing out that the Times' reporting in its news pages had the habit of undercutting the claims that Safire was advancing as fact in his columns.

The real thing about Safire, though, was not whether his columns made sense. It was that the man could write. At their best, which was often — he had a great hit rate — Safire columns were just tremendously good fun, full of wordplay, some of it groan-inducing, much of it sheer enjoyment. That is depressingly rare. Not for Safire the cloddish metaphors, arch constructions, one-sentence paragraphs and dreary wonkery that are the stock in trade of too many modern American columnists. He was of that generation of inky-fingered wretches who remember that it isn't a sin for journalism to entertain — indeed, that one way you can get across a point about which you feel passionately is to make people smile while they are absorbing it. If you disagreed with a Safire column, fine (I usually did); but at least it got the juices flowing. And this meant, I suspect, that many of those with political views a million miles from those of Safire — to adopt W.H. Auden on William Butler Yeats — pardoned him for writing well. They missed him when he'd gone.

At a memorial service for a distinguished British journalist a few years ago, an editor said the man could "make words dance." So could Safire. And oh, ye gods and little fishes, how we could do with a few more gavottes and tangos in journalism right now.