Speechwriter, Columnist William Safire Dies At 79

William Safire, the New York Times columnist and wordsmith who cut his teeth as a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, died Sunday at age 79. He had pancreatic cancer and had been staying at a hospice in Rockville, Md. Host Guy Raz traces the career of a man who spent more than four decades at the center of the political world.

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GUY RAZ, host:

William Safire, The New York Times columnist and wordsmith who cut his teeth as a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, died today. He was 79. Safire's name appeared on the paper's op-ed page for more than 30 years, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1978.

In his weekly Times Magazine column, "On Language," he traced the roots of common words and phrases like straw man, and he even issued tongue-in-cheek rules for writers, like this one: Take the bull by the hand, and avoid mixing metaphors.

William Safire's love of language was rivaled by a ferocious love of politics. And the political columns, well, they were his bread and butter.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): He was sort of a fierce civil libertarian. And if anybody got in the way of free speech, or if the government tried to intrude on any civil liberties, he was always there. It was one of his pet causes.

RAZ: That's current New York Times columnist David Brooks. When William Safire joined the Times in 1973, he was its first truly conservative columnist, once joking that he was hired to be a sore thumb. He paved the way for a later generation of conservative columnists that included Brooks.

Mr. BROOKS: My real introduction to Safire was when I was hired by the Times to be a fellow columnist. And he took me under his wing and mentored me for a couple years, not only introducing me to everybody at the paper but sort of introducing me to the world of writing to an audience that was often hostile.

RAZ: William Safire came to the Times with a history. As a Republican speechwriter, he'd helped shaped the divisive presidential campaign of 1968, and he coined Spiro Agnew's now famous phrase:

Former Vice President SPIRO AGNEW: In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.

RAZ: Safire later said that line was directed not at the press but at what he called Vietnam defeatists. David Brooks says Safire eventually won people over by always being gracious and friendly, and having his phone tapped by the Nixon White House helped convince skeptical colleagues that he was no yes-man.

William Safire was sometimes accused of being rash, for example, by labeling Hillary Clinton a congenital liar. In an interview before Safire's death, David Gergen, a fellow aide under President Nixon, said that in general, readers valued William Safire because of his contrary nature.

Mr. DAVID GERGEN (Former Presidential Aide): He follows his own instincts and his own dreams, and that leads him down some paths that sometimes are absolutely right and he's way out in front of everybody else, and sometimes it leads him into dry holes. And you can't - you never know when he starts, but you always follow him because you want to know where the pail is going to go.

RAZ: William Safire died today in Maryland of pancreatic cancer. He was 79 years old.

And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great week.

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