William Safire, RIP


New York Times columnist and former Nixon speechwriter William Safire, 79, died today at a hospice in Maryland. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

Safire got his start behind the scenes at the Nixon-Kruschev kitchen debate, as the press agent for one of the exhibits at the American Exhibition in Moscow (he tells the story on Wait, Wait). Safire then went to work for Republican liberals (we used to have those) Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay here in New York.

From there, he became a speechwriter for the Nixon White House, where he pioneered the technique of working the media refs by crafting such alliterative tributes to the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “vicars of vacillation,” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history” for not-yet-indicted Vice President Spiro Agnew.

By the time that fell apart, Safire had moved on to the Times, where he wrote a combatively conservative OpEd column for over two decades (his How to Read a [Political] Column is a brilliant dissection of a discipline he helped to invent in its current form). He popularized the word “pundit” to describe what he did for a living. He also wrote a popular, and very well written, language column for the Magazine Section from 1979 until his death.

From 1995 to 2004, he was a member of the Board that awards the Pulitzer Prizes, including the 1999 award to Maureen Dowd which helped to mainstream snark in journalism. A case can be made that this, along with his overt partisanship, make him a spiritual godfather of political blogging.

He is survived by his wife, son and daughter.