It does inadequate justice to William Safire’s talents as a political writer to observe that for years he was the most readable of the New York Times’ resident op-ed columnists. Safire, who died Sunday at age 79, leaves behind a far larger legacy, most of all as it concerns the political language that he did so much to shape.
Safire made his first contribution to the country’s political lexicon as a speechwriter for President Nixon. A 1969 article about the administration had described him as the “word factory’s resident pro for zingers and snappers,” and Safire shortly lived up to the distinction. While working as an on-loan speechwriter for Vice President Spiro Agnew, Safire fashioned the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism” to describe the administration’s anti-Vietnam war critics in the press and in politics. Agnew used the line, along with a similarly intended dig at the “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”
The media, then as now unsympathetic to a Republican administration, was unimpressed. The New York Times’ James Reston histrionically called it “the worst example of alliteration in American history.” But the phrase became famous and the alliterative device that Safire favored became a classic rhetorical parry for dispatching political doomsayers. Not even political foes like Bill Clinton, who once threatened to punch Safire in the nose after the columnist called his wife a “congenital liar,” were immune to its charms. In 1993, Clinton denounced his critics as the “preachers of pessimism – a line that bore more than a passing resemblance to Safire’s Nixon-era coinage and that underscored his influence on political rhetoric.
That influence was most prominently deployed in the brilliant and engaging “On Language” column that Safire wrote for the Times, in addition to his political punditry, from 1979 until 2009. Intentionally apolitical – Safire, tongue partially in cheek, described it as his “neutral corner of scholarly tranquility” – it was widely read, not only for its etymological insights about language (the “nabob” in his famous phrase had roots in an Urdu word for governor, with a connotation of self-importance) but also for his occasional comeuppances to political figures who misused it. In a 1983 column, for instance, Safire took the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to task for his claim that Reagan defense secretary Casper Weinberger had erred when he accused Soviet leader Yuri Andropov of spreading “standard Soviet disinformation.” Weinberger meant to say “misinformation,” Moynihan insisted. In his rebuttal, Safire pointed out that disinformation – meaning to spread false news with malicious intent – was indeed the accusation that the defense secretary meant to make, and it was the senator who was wrong – though, as Safire helpfully added, “he is merely misinformed.” Sometimes, Safire’s political and language columns synchronized. Following Clinton’s reported threat of violence, Safire, with habitual good humor, produced a column exploring the usage of “congenital,” “liar,” and “punch on the nose.”
Politically, Safire could be as difficult to pin down as the words whose origins he tried to trace. Although generally considered a “libertarian conservative,” Safire did not always succeed in reconciling the two ideologies. While his support for the Iraq war was reasonable enough, his broadsides against the Bush administration’s homeland security policies, including the Patriot Act, could be confused and alarmist. Worse, they lent credibility to the more unhinged attacks from the political Left that the Bush administration was erecting a massive “police state” at home. In 2003, the ACLU pointed to Safire’s columns as evidence that “loudest voices denouncing the administration have been powerful Republicans.”
Safire was more convincing in defense of another frequent subject of his columns: Israel and its security. Like his friend and longtime source, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon (“Arik” as he was sometimes called in Safire’s columns), Safire understood that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not a dispute between two equal parties with comparably legitimate grievances, and he rejected calls for the United States to adopt a more “evenhanded” approach between the two. “No nation or international group can be an honest broker between a democracy under attack and a terrorist coalition on the march,” Safire warned. In the months after the September 11 attacks, Safire was quick to grasp what many of his Times colleagues did not: that Israel and the United States, on different fronts, were fighting the same war against Islamic terrorism. Safire’s passionate defense of Israel earned the Pulitzer Prize winner a backhanded badge of honor toward the end of his career: a disparaging mention in the Israel Lobby, professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s scurrilous attack on the Jewish state and its supporters.
For all his success as a political journalist, it was his fascination with language that set Safire apart. It was not merely a hobby. For Safire, language shaped society, and, as such, was indispensable to those who aspired to lead it. As Benjamin Disraeli put it, in a quote that Safire liked to cite, “With words we govern men.” It’s a great pity that Safire will not be around to subject President Obama’s gushed-over oratory to critical exegesis that was a signature of his Times columns. All the more so because one can’t count on the same detached scrutiny from his former employer.