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William Safire, Conservative Columnist, Dies at 79

September 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Jeffrey Brown looks back at the life of William Safire, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and former speechwriter for President Nixon, who died Sunday at the age of 79.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, remembering William Safire, a man of words and punditry. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more than 30 years, William Safire sent forth wit, barbs, and much more from his influential perch as a conservative columnist for the New York Times. He began his career in public relations and then became a speechwriter for Richard Nixon before coming to the Times, where he won a Pulitzer Prize and took delight in his contrarian role.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I get a lot of mail now, a lot of e-mail, from people saying, “How come you’re at the New York Times? You stick out like a sore thumb.” Well, I was hired to be the sore thumb, and I’m delighted to be going against the grain.

It’s like when you’re a salmon swimming upstream. If the stream is going fast enough, even if you’re only standing still, you get the feeling you’re really going fast.

Both parties are now running against the other side.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over the years, Safire was a regular television presence, including on the NewsHour and “Meet the Press.” He also gained a devoted following for his “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine, which looked at various uses and abuses of words. And he authored more than a dozen books, including novels and works on politics and language.

In 2006, Safire was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush.

And with me now is Marty Tolchin, long-time friend and colleague of William Safire. He spent 40 years at the New York Times and helped create both the Hill newspaper and Politico.

And welcome to you.

MARTY TOLCHIN: Good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Safire made that, what was then an unusual transition, right, from the White House to that column?

Greeted with suspicion

MARTY TOLCHIN: He did. And he was greeted with great suspicion and some hostility by the members of the Washington bureau of the New York Times for several reasons. First of all, it was April of 1973. Nixon was not the most popular person in the bureau of the New York Times. Bill was regarded as a mere Nixon flack. And almost every member of the Washington bureau thought that, if there was going to be another column, they should be writing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: They should do it. They didn't want an outsider, especially somebody coming from the Nixon White House?

MARTY TOLCHIN: Exactly. And in time, of course, they accepted him. The actual turning moment was at a Times bureau party, when the son, the young son of a reporter, Jim Naughton, fell into the swimming pool, and Bill dove in fully clothed and rescued the child. And from that moment on, Bill was accepted.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so that won him over at a personal level. What about as a columnist? What were the keys to his success and the influence that he gained?

MARTY TOLCHIN: I think there are several. One is Bill knew how to throw a punch, as we all know, but his real stock and trade was wit and humor and a light touch. And when he called Hillary Clinton a congenital liar...

JEFFREY BROWN: Famously.

MARTY TOLCHIN: ... and President Clinton responded by saying, if he were not president, he would deliver a blow to the crown of Bill's nose, Bill's response was that he was really pleased that the president had correctly used the subjunctive tense. And that is Bill.

He was an iconoclast. I think when you picked up his column in the morning, you never really knew what to expect. He was a conservative in the truest sense of the word, I think, because he believed in minimal government, including minimal intrusions in civil liberties.

JEFFREY BROWN: He called himself a libertarian conservative, right?

MARTY TOLCHIN: He was a libertarian.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... which meant that he sometimes would take on people in the Republican Party.

Critical of government

MARTY TOLCHIN: Exactly. He criticized the Bush administration for their treatment of prisoners, for their suspension of habeas corpus. He did not believe that government belonged in the bedroom. He did not believe that government belonged in schools, as far as school prayer was concerned.

He was a true libertarian. He believed in minimal government. And he had great confidence in the ability of people to run their own lives without great assistance from the government.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the other well-known side of Safire, the man who wrote the "On Language" column, who endlessly gave those famous phrases, "the nattering nabobs of negativism," and then interest for years and years in words and language. Where did that come from?

MARTY TOLCHIN: He was in love with language, as he was in love with politics. And, you know, he dropped out of Syracuse actually to ghost-write a column in the New York Herald Tribune, something that my buddies at the New York Times did not know when he came to the Times. He had already been a columnist, although a ghost columnist.

Bill, when we were -- I've known Bill since we were kids. We were 14 years old, really, when we met. We lived in the same apartment hotel on the west side of Manhattan, because our dads had both died and our moms were working.

And we would entertain ourselves by distributing political buttons. And we really didn't care who the candidates were or what party they belonged to. There was a brothel across the street from our apartment house, and we distributed some of those buttons to ladies of the evening, who wore them, I assume...

Dedicated friend and writer

JEFFREY BROWN: Good training for politics or whatever, huh?

MARTY TOLCHIN: Right. Right. But he's always been in love with language. He's also been an extremely generous friend. And, you know, you never had to ask Bill Safire for help. If you had a book coming out and you were a member of the Washington bureau or a friend of his, he wouldn't say anything, but you'd open up -- again, you'd open up his column one day or the word column in the magazine, and there would be a reference to your book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's great. Marty Tolchin on the life and times of William Safire, thank you so much.

MARTY TOLCHIN: Good to be here.