Washington — William Safire, the conservative speechwriter turned columnist who made an art of at once embracing and poking the Washington establishment, died at 79.
Safire died in a hospice in Maryland on Sunday, just before Yom Kippur, his former employer, the New York Times, reported. He had pancreatic cancer.
Safire was an adman visiting Moscow in 1959 when he made friends with then-Vice President Richard Nixon by arranging a capitalism vs. communism “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier.
That friendship landed Safire a speechwriter’s job in Nixon’s White House in 1969. He helped cultivate the image of Nixon – the former vice president and consummate GOP insider just elected to the most powerful position in the free world – as somehow an outsider to Washington’s establishment. He coined the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism” to describe the administration’s critics.
From the White House, he leapt in 1973 to the op-ed page of the New York Times, another bastion of the establishment, to become, according to one account, a “hawk among doves.”
His twice-weekly column, running until 2005, made him a gadfly of Democrats and liberals; he worked the column like a beat reporter and won the 1978 Pulitzer for columns raising questions about the propriety of the financial dealings of Bert Lance, President Jimmy Carter’s budget director. (Lance was acquitted of charges arising out of the exposes, and later befriended Safire.)
Safire, later in his career, seemed sometimes unaware how much a part of the Washington establishment he had become; one mid-1990s column was a reproach of the Clinton administration for removing his fellow columnist, Maureen Dowd, from the White House-sanctioned party circuit.
Safire reserved his deepest affections for Israel; Israeli prime ministers often used his column’s valued real estate to convey messages to the Washington leadership. He was especially close to Ariel Sharon. In a Jan. 3 2005 column he asked Sharon, who was buffeted by criticism from the right for setting the stage for the evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip: “And do you expect to be prime minister one year from today?” He recorded Sharon’s reply as: “Why only one year?”
Exactly a year and a day later, Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke and was replaced as prime minister by Ehud Olmert.
Safiire turned on Israel when he felt it erred; he blasted Israel for running U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard as a spy, although he later described Pollard’s life sentence as “excessive.” In 2000, when the United States stood opposed to the Jewish state’s arms sales to China, Safire invoked the prophetic injunction about forgetting Jerusalem in his warning to Israel not to endanger its most valuable alliance: “Reconsider, Israel; let not your democratic hand lose its cunning.”
In 2001, he took aim at the Ehud Barak government and the Anti-Defamation League for being part of the successful effort to win a pardon for fugitive tax evader Marc Rich from President Bill Clinton. He called for Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, to retire. Foxman called him up and the conversation produced a memorable lede:
”You never made a mistake in your life?” an angry Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, shouted over the phone. ”What about when you worked for that anti-Semite Nixon?”
Safire took back his call for Foxman’s head, although he said Foxman’s jibe was “unfair.”
Over the years, Safire made clear in his column his pain at discovering that not only Nixon but other cherished friends from that administration – Vice President Spiro Agnew and speechwriter Pat Buchanan – were not above frequent anti-Semitic outbursts or even, in Buchanan’s case, adopting the bigotry as a strategy.
After Buchanan, preparing for a presidential run in 1999 on the Reform ticket, accused the “Israeli lobby” of not putting American first, Safire wrote this of a man he once considered a close friend:
“Was this calculated to whip up resentment at Jews’ political participation, even at the cost of stimulating anti-Semitism? Of course; he knows exactly what he’s doing. To pose as fair, he also imputes policy disloyalty to Americans with ties to Cuba, Greece, Armenia and a dozen other places, and is careful to say ‘Israeli lobby’ rather than ‘Jewish lobby.’ But you know what he means.”
Safire is equaly remembered as the “On Language” columnist, appearing in the New York Times Magazine from 1979 until earlier this year. He loved to plumb the meanings of what had become common usage – especially common political usage – and seemed to take special pleasure in uncovering Jewish origins. In 2007 he asked readers to research the origins of “Go figure.” Some uncovered evidence that it was an American original, others said its derivation was Spanish, and others insisted it stemmed from the Yiddish, “gay vays,” or “Go know.”
“My call: Go figure is a clip of standard English ‘Go and figure it out for yourself,’ given a Yiddish overlay by go know and an expressive shrug and weary rolling of the eyes long identified with an ethnic group.”
Safire is survived by his wife, Helene, his son, Mark, and his daughter, Annabel, and a granddaughter.