William Safire, a New York PR man turned speechwriter for Richard Nixon turned Pulitzer Prize winning conservative voice of the New York Times opinion page, died on Sunday at a hospice in Rockville, Md. He was 79.
Safire was born William Safir in 1929 to a Jewish family in the Bronx, later adding the “e” to his surname for easier pronunciation.
Safire, who worked as a report for WNBC-TV in Europe and the Middle East in 1951, first entered organized politics in 1952, when he arranged a rally for Eisenhower supporters at Madison Square Garden.
In a Times column earlier this year, he recalled working as a publicist for a builder exhibiting a model American home at the American trade fair in Moscow in 1959, and steering Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev into their famous "Kitchen Debate." Safire also took a photograph that became the iconic image of the encounter.
The next year, he joined Nixon's presidential campaign. After his man fell short against Kennedy, Safire started his own public relations firm, working for two liberal New York Republicans - Gov. Nelson Rockefeller is his 1964 bid for the party’s presidential nomination and John Lindsay’s successful 1965 mayoral campaign.
In 1968, he again signed on to work for the Nixon campaign, and after his candidate’s win, Safire sold his agency and became a speechwriter for Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew.
A life long lover of alliterative language, Safire is the inventor of Agnew's famous phrase, "nattering nabobs of negativism."
After working words for the White House through Watergate, he crossed the politics-pundits divide and joined the New York Times as a columnist in 1973.
“I get a lot of e-mail saying, ‘How come are you at the New York Times?’” Safire said in an online interview with the Times’ website when he retired from op-ed writing in 2005. “’You stick out like a sore thumb.’ I was hired to be the sore thumb.”
On average, it would take him three hours to write his column once he had formulated the idea.
“You shouldn’t spend more than 3 hours,” Safire said, “because that means you haven’t through it through.”
In describing the column-writing process, Safire said that he would put in about a half-dozen phone calls in the morning, start writing at noon, take a break for lunch, and get down to nuts and bolts around 3 o’clock. “Then it will be interrupted by the phone calls,” Safire said.
As one of the Times’ “big foots,” Safire said that, “the one thing I’ve got is total editorial freedom.”
Initially regarded as a lightweight conservative voice on a page dominated by liberals, Safire soon shed that reputation, winning the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for his columns about private sector financial wrongdoings by President Carter’s OMB director and prayer partner Bert Lance.
In his interview with the Times’ website, Safire recalled how former Times Editor Abe Rosenthal called Safire into his office one day to question why the columnist continued to investigate rumors of corruption when Lance was formerly chairman of the board of a bank in George, in his columns even though the Times wasn’t following up in the paper. Safire said he told Rosenthal that he had a solid source and the editor assigned a reporter to follow. As for Lance, he and Safire would eventually become friends.
Safire’s “Essay” on the Op-Ed page ran twice a week until 2003, when he retired to become head of the Dana Foundation, a group that supports brain research and neuroethics. The Foundation announced just last Thursday that Safire was undergoing chemotherapy.
The pundit’s authoritative take on a variety of interests flummoxed critics looking to pigeonhole him, also wrote four novels, and many works of non fiction, including the “The New Language of Politics,” a 1975 book later republished as “Safire’s Political Dictionary” that’s still read by political junkies, and “Before the Fall,” a tell-all about the Nixon years. And for a decade starting in 1995, he served on the board that awards Pulitzer Prizes to journalists.
Safire himself as a libertarian conservative, and on that order, was always willing to take shots at those one his side when they moved away from his principles. After his 1991 Chicken Kiev column whacking President Bush for what the columnist thought was too soft a line on Soviets, the president is reported to have never again spoken with him.
Though he came close to backing Clinton in 1992, largely over differences with the Bush administration on Israel, he also went after the Clintons hard, famously calling Hillary a "congential liar."
Betsy Fischer, the longtime executive producer of NBC's "Meet the Press, fondly recalled the man who appeared on the venerable show 99 times.
"He was a true gentle-man, gracious and kind and so smart," Fischer said.
She recalled the show's late moderator, Tim Russert, giving Safire a pair of boxing gloves after the "congenital liar" remark prompting a spokesman for Bill Clinton to say the president wanted to punch the conservative pundit in the nose.
"He laughed, saying what he meant to say was she was a 'congenial lawyer,'" Fischer said.
He used the same line crediting it to humorist Mark Russell, in a memorable 2005 column looking back on his relationships with first ladies over the years. In it, he boasted that President Clinton’s response “made me the envy of every columnist.”
In addition to his political writings, Safire also wrote a weekly current affairs rhetoric column in the New York Times Magazine, “On Langauge,” that he continued to pen after he retired from the op-ed page. His last installment ran two weeks ago, and focused on the economic term of art, “bending the curve.”
In 2006, Safire received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush.
Safire married the former Helene Belmar Julius, a model, pianist and jewelry designer, in 1962. The Times reports that the couple is survived by two children, Mark and Annabel, and a granddaughter.