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William Safire dies

William Safire, 79, conservative political columnist and word maven, died today at a hospice in Rockville, Md., reportedly of pancreatic cancer. The full Washington Post obit can be found here.

Mr. Safire, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1978 for his scathing columns on the Carter White House budget director Bert Lance, wrote a semi-weekly political column in the Times from 1973 to 2005, penning an erudite and opinionated series of articles, ultimately creating a body of work that he described as libertarian conservative. He said he "was hired to be a sore thumb" at the famously liberal newspaper. "It's time to leave when you're still hitting the long ball and have something else you want to do," he told the Washington Post at the time, one of many baseball-related metaphors that popped up in his work.

He was equally known for his On Language column, which he began writing in 1979, a delightful look at the origins of words and phrases and their proper usage that engaged readers from all over the U.S. He wrote it until two weeks ago.

Critics accused him of trumpeting "scandals" during the Clinton administration that were never proved; he also published several columns pressing the case that Saddam Hussein was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, which was not true, according to the 9/11 Commission.

After Mr. Safire retired from column-writing, he became head of the Dana Foundation, a brain research and neuroethics group. The Foundation announced last week that Mr. Safire was undergoing chemotherapy.

Born in New York City, he dropped out of Syracuse University after two years. He returned a generation later to deliver the commencement address and became a university trustee. He was a correspondent in the U.S. Army and a radio, television and newspaper reporter before running a public relations firm in New York. As a PR man, he was responsible for bringing then-Vice President Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev together in the 1959 Moscow kitchen debate.

In 1968, he joined Nixon's presidential campaign and became a senior speechwriter, credited with coining the phrases "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "hysterical hypochondriacs of history" that Vice President Spiro Agnew used to describe the U.S. media.

He is the author of four novels: Freedom (1987), Full Disclosure (1977), Sleeper Spy (1995) and Scandalmonger (2000). His other titles include a dictionary, a history, anthologies and commentaries.

He was a past member of the Pulitzer Prize board and in 2006, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. Mr. Safire lived in suburban Washington.
The New York Times first reported his death.

By Patricia Sullivan |  September 27, 2009; 2:47 PM ET  | Category:  Obituaries , Newspapers , Washington DC-area people
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Folks, please. Enough of this grave dancing. Regardless of how we felt about Safire, Kennedy, Novak, etc., they did have families. If they did something in life that was questionable, I think its God's job, not ours, to judge them.

Posted by: mstov | September 27, 2009 3:30 PM

Wow, what a great year we're having- first Bob Novak, then Irving Kristol and now Bill Safire. If not for the massive unemployment, teetering economy and wars near defeat that they all helped start and/or encouraged, we could say things were looking up.

Posted by: hairguy01 | September 27, 2009 3:33 PM


You're wasting electrons. The same morons who got so sanctimonious about all the snide comments about Kennedy will be out in force to comment here on Safire.

You see, there is no difference between the far left and the far right. They are all extremist hypocrites.

Posted by: hisroc | September 27, 2009 3:35 PM

I can't believe that anyone would be so scummy as to take delight in Mr. Safire's passing. My politics are very liberal, but I always enjoyed his writing, both on politics and on the English language. Unlike many of today's cable TV right-wing screamers, he was both thoughtful and respectful of the views of others. I rarely agreed with his political conclusions, but always looked forward to reading his column. His passing is a loss for all of us who long for the return of a civil tone to the discussion of current events.

Posted by: taylorb1 | September 27, 2009 3:37 PM


here here,well said

Posted by: dem4evr | September 27, 2009 3:43 PM

He lived a long, privileged life that most people don't enjoy, while supporting the Bush wars for which our young men and women die or become crippled for life. There's absolutely no remorse whatsoever from me for cowardly scoundrels like him, at all.

Posted by: TalkingHead1 | September 27, 2009 3:53 PM

The Zionist neocons are dropping like flies. Unlike Kristol who was intellectually important and inspiring Safire was just a thug for Richard Nixon.

Posted by: ravitchn | September 27, 2009 3:54 PM

Mr Safire was a decent, dignified gentleman. His politics disagreed with mine, but he was always courteous, and kind to all. To ridicule or denigrate his passing is nothing less that what one would expect of the scroundrels who today, call themselves "journalists" and/or "personalities". RIP Mr Safire.

Posted by: johnhenson499 | September 27, 2009 3:57 PM

Pancreatic cancer. Seems to be lot of that going around. Anyone else notice that?

I enjoyed his On Language column. Sad that he'll mostly be remembered as a word-twister, for being part of the Nixon administration and for a couple of lines delivered by Spiro Agnew, that bastion of conservative principles who had to resign over bribery charges.

Posted by: gce1356 | September 27, 2009 4:08 PM

A small pleasure. Safire used his column in a bid to derail a federal investigation into corruption. His behavior was obsessive, salacious, and more than bordered on stalking. He was a disturbed individual.

Some people I am glad to see go. William Safire is one of them.

Posted by: redd1 | September 27, 2009 4:14 PM

His passing is a loss for all of us who long for the return of a civil tone to the discussion of current events.
Posted by: taylorb1 | September 27, 2009 3:37 PM
Agreed. I rarely agreed with his political ideology, but regarded him as on par with Wm F Buckley Jr for delivering his opinions with wit and style.

Posted by: gce1356 | September 27, 2009 4:15 PM

That's a real shame. I liked Safire, even though he was somewhat conservative. A great loss.

Posted by: | September 27, 2009 4:18 PM

Though I frequently disagreed with his politics, my year and a half working as Mr. Safire's researcher and reporter for On Language was one of the most satisfying moments of my career. He was exacting, tough and perpetually on my side, exhorting me to work harder, faster, smarter and with the relish he took in the English language.

For all the nattering about the imminent nosedive of journalism, more of us in the field could benefit from the tutelage of old-timers who knew the game. Safire was a better journalism school than any out there, and as a mentor, has been the most important in my life. You'll be missed, Saf.

Posted by: aarondbritt | September 27, 2009 4:20 PM


I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment and taylorb1's comment.

However, the expression is properly spelled "Hear Hear" and comes from a common saying in the British Parliment encouraging people to "hear" the speaker.

I probably learned that by reading On Language.

Posted by: pezzhome1 | September 27, 2009 4:21 PM

Readers and commenters, we do monitor these postings and I've had to remove two so far for inappropriate language. There's nothing wrong with a robust discussion about a person's accomplishments or his/her public life, but please refrain from slanderous language.

If you're unclear about what's not OK, review
Thank you.

Posted by: Patricia Sullivan | September 27, 2009 6:09 PM

Safire was a HUGE George W. Bush supporter - And W. gave him the medal of freedom. He was a HUGE Nixon lover, even after Nixon disgraced this nation to its core. "The company you keep" tells you the story of Safire. He was a war-mongering right wing flake who just couldn't find someone too far to the right to worship -- and for all his so-called academic aires, he really was nothing more than a belligerent, reactionary, Republican hack. And as for God judging him, He'll take years to first wipe the blood off Safire's hands before he can render any opinion.

Posted by: jdwagner | September 27, 2009 6:26 PM

Safire wrote some great pieces on the use of language and the origins of popular expressions. I had no use for his politics, however.

I agree with the previous poster that it is meanspirited to malign the passing of your political enemies. God forbid a family member might read this thread!

Posted by: maggots | September 27, 2009 6:30 PM

Ten years ago the word “conservative” could have been applied fairly to William Safire. Today, however, because the word is more frequently used to characterize the rank and file of the tin-foil-hat brigades, I would not apply the term to him. Mr. Safire was an intellectual, a gentleman and a first class writer. I disagreed with him, but I looked forward to his columns. With the passing of newspaper men like him, it is less likely that the center will hold.

Posted by: codexjust1 | September 27, 2009 6:33 PM

It's a shame Safire left grieving family members, my condolances....that said, Safire was a face and voice of what is wrong in America today...

Posted by: seakeys | September 27, 2009 7:21 PM

Here's a column describing an event mentioned in the obituary:

Posted by: netgotham1 | September 27, 2009 8:04 PM

I am not a conservative who admired Safire because I agreed with most of what he wrote. But it is grossly unfair to picture him as a crude apologist for anything Republican administrations did. Safire issued an unqualified condemnation of Cheney's secret "energy task force" several years ago (see "Behind Closed Doors", New York Times, Dec. 17, 2003). He also repeatedly condemned the Bush administration's efforts at invasion of privacy in the name of the "war on terror" (examples are "You Are A Suspect," New York Times, Nov. 14, 2002; and "Privacy Invasion Curtailed", New York Times, Feb. 13 2003). There are other similar cases. I admired him for this kind of determination to follow principle over partisanship, which is not exactly common among prominent conservative media personalities these days.

Posted by: twm1 | September 28, 2009 5:49 AM

Mr. safire's death is a losse to Israel, whom he loved and served more than he loved and served America and this is the truth.

Posted by: mossab | September 28, 2009 8:47 AM

While I usually disagreed with Mr. Safire's opinions I always felt he was a good man. On the rare occasion that I'd see him on television he would always get a twinkle in his eye when using a favorite word or phrase to make his argument. My thoughts go out to his family.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Safire.

Posted by: pmorlan1 | September 28, 2009 8:58 AM

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