Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

William Safire

As a speechwriter, William Safire made Spiro Agnew sound fizzy — "nattering nabobs of negativism" was his alliterative classic — and helped Richard Nixon explain his policies. But it was in his Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper column that Safire became Safire. There he honed a natural pugnacity — a desire to "mix it up," as he put it. And boy, did he wade in. When everyone was putting down Washington Mayor Marion Barry, he was alone in criticizing violations of Barry's privacy. He voted for Bill Clinton but pulled no punches toward him or Hillary. He gave me some of the best professional advice I've ever received: Write what you experience and see, because "what history needs more of is first-person testimony." Once, when I got a tough book review, he called and joyfully barked, "Welcome to the NFL!" At the time, it was not a cliché. He probably made it a cliché. He probably coined it.

—Peggy Noonan

Noonan is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal