William Safire

The American journalist William Safire (born 1929) was one of the most influential political columnists in the United States into the 1990s. A former public relations executive and President Richard Nixon speechwriter, Safire contributed a conservative perspective to the New York Times.

Born December 17, 1929, in New York City, William Safire was the youngest of three sons of Oliver C. and Ida (Panish) Safir. (Safire later changed the spelling of the family name while in the army to ensure correct pronunciation.) His father, a successful thread manufacturer, died when Safire was four, and he was raised by his mother in Los Angeles and New York.

After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in New York, Safire attended Syracuse University for two years. Through the help of his older brother Leonard, he got a job as a copyboy for Tex McCrary, a personality columnist for the New York Herald Tribune who also hosted a radio show and was involved in Republican politics. McCrary's "kids" included future media celebrities such as Barbara Walters, but Safire was regarded as the brightest of the bunch, interviewing leading figures of the day. In 1952 he spent time as a correspondent in Europe and the Mid-East before entering the army. Assigned to public relations, he persuaded NBC to televise a July 4th ceremony awarding military decorations staged at the floor of the Statue of Liberty.

After leaving the army in 1954, Safire got a job with NBC producing a television and radio show featuring McCrary and his wife. In 1955 he was named vice-president of the Ted McCrary, Inc. public relations firm. In 1959, representing a household products firm at the American Exhibition in Moscow, he helped arrange the famous "kitchen debate" between Vice-President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, shooting the Associated Press photo of the event.

Through McCrary, Safire had organized in February 1952 an Eisenhower for President rally at Madison Square Gardens. He later received a political education from Wall Street lawyer Jack Wells, who introduced him to William Casey, Nixon's 1960 campaign manager. Much later, Casey, serving as President Ronald Reagan's director of the Central Intelligence Agency, became a target of Safire during the Iran-Contra affair.

In 1960 Safire acted as chief of special projects for Nixon's presidential bid. In the early 1960s he worked on a number of other Republican campaigns in New York City and state, and in 1964 he supervised public relations for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller's presidential campaign.

In 1961 Safire opened his own public relations firm. In 1963 he wrote his first book, The Relations Explosion, followed by Plunging into Politics in 1964 (written with Marshall Loeb) which offered candidates advice on organizing, staffing, and financing campaigns.

In 1965 Safire volunteered as an unpaid speechwriter for Nixon and was assigned to help Patrick Buchanan with Nixon's syndicated newspaper column. In 1968 he wrote the victory speech following Nixon's election and in 1969, after selling his company for a reported $335,000 cash, he joined the White House staff. As a presidential assistant he represented the moderate wing of the Republican Party and was responsible for major statements on the economy and Vietnam War. On loan to Vice-President Spiro Agnew in 1970, he was credited with coining such well-known phrases as Agnew's labeling of the liberal media as "nattering nabobs of negativism."

During Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign Safire wrote a series of signed articles for The Washington Post which ran as a debate with Senator George McGovern's campaign coordinator, Frank Mankiewicz. After the election Safire was courted by the Post to become a columnist, but then met New York Times publisher Arthur Punch Sultzberger at a charity dinner. Safire accepted Sultzberger's offer to become a columnist for the Times, an offer greeted with scorn by other Times editors and reporters, especially when Safire defended Nixon during the Watergate crisis.

He proved a hard-working reporter and in 1978 won a Pulitzer prize for commentary for exposing questionable financial dealings of President Jimmy Carter's budget director Burt Lance. But Safire, who espoused the philosophy "kick them when they're up," later became a friend of Lance's after he was found innocent by a jury.

A self-labeled "libertarian conservative," Safire showed tremendous loyalties to the Nixon White House and Israel, but he criticized friends if he felt they strayed from his sense of right. A militant on foreign policy—"I am a hard-liner and a hawk"—he once called Nixon soft on Communism for favoring detente. He attacked President Reagan for not being tough enough early in his administration, but also held him responsible for the Iran-Contra scandal, upsetting many on the political right.

Over the years Safire earned the admiration of other journalists, such as Washington Post editor Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, and even respect from early critics such as New York Times executive editor Max Frankel, who later believed opposing the hiring of Safire was his biggest mistake.

Described as "a master of both puckish wit and earsplitting indignation" by one critic, Safire was called "America's best practitioner of the art of calumny."

In addition to his twice-a-week political column, which appeared in over 300 papers, he was also known as a literary stylist, a pop grammarian, and the author of a weekly column, "On Language," which appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine section.

In 1968 he published The New Language of Politics, a dictionary of words and slogans in the political arena, and later he published several revisions as well as numerous other books on language.

He also turned his pen to fiction, writing Full Disclosure (1977) and Freedom (1987), a massive story about President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War between 1860 and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Safire hoped to continue the column until he was 80. "I have the greatest job in the world," he said. At 68, he's still cranking out weekly columns for the Times on politics, language usage and the way things ought to be. In 1996, as a token of his appreciation, he donated a number of books from his private collection to the E.S. Bird Library at New Yorks' Syracuse University. It was his way of paying the school back for a 1949 scholarship he'd received. He was living in a suburb of Washington, D.C., in 1997 with his British-born wife Helene. They had two children.


Further Reading on William Safire

William Safire's column can be read in the New York Times. He is also the author of numerous books on politics and language: The Relations Explosion (1963), Plunging into Politics (1964), The New Language of Politics (1968), and again, The New Language of Politics (1972), Before the Fall: Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House (1975), Full Disclosure (1977), Safire's Political Dictionary, (updated 1978), Safire's Washington (1980), On Language (1980), What's the Good Word (1982), Good Advice (1982), I Stand Corrected: More on Language (1984), Take My Word for It: More on Language (1986), Freedom (1987), You Could Look It Up: More on Language (1988), Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice (1989), Language Maven Strikes Again (1990), and Leadership (1990).

He was also featured in a couple of magazine profiles: Lally Weymouth, "From Nixon to Lincoln," New York (August 31, 1987) and Walter Shapiro, "Prolific Purveyor of Punditry," TIME (February 12, 1990).