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William Safire, Conservative Columnist, Dies at 79

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?