Columnist, Speechwriter William Safire Dies at 79

William Safire, a columnist for The New York Times and 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.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The conservative columnist William Safire has died at the age of 79. He frequently infuriated Democratic presidents. On occasion, he denounced Republican presidents. He wrote about the English language, and he even wrote about intelligence agencies using information that, he wryly claimed, secret agents delivered to him by leaving an envelope under a tree. NPR's David Folkenflik remembers a columnist who started as a speechwriter for President Nixon.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Whatever your politics, it's hard not to love a guy who comes up with phrases like this...

Mr. SPIRO AGNEW (Former Vice-President, Republican): The nattering nabobs of negativism.

FOLKENFLIK: A nabob, as you may recall, was the term for the governor of an Indian state during the Mogul Empire. Leave it to William Safire to come up with that alliterative assault for Vice President Spiro Agnew to use against critics during an era of war and domestic unrest. Safire spoke about it last year on NPR.

Mr. WILLIAM SAFIRE (Columnist, Author): The code of the speechwriters is you never claim a phrase, but the vice president did say, I got that from Safire. And it was either that or the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history, and he went with the better one.

FOLKENFLIK: William Safire was born in New York City on December 17th, 1929. He attended Syracuse University, and after becoming a reporter and serving in the U.S. Army, he went into business as a publicist.

In 1959, at the Moscow World's Fair, he lured then-Vice President Richard Nixon into a model home built by Safire's client. A crush of reporters trapped Nixon and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The ensuing Kitchen Debate drew international headlines for both the young American politician and the homebuilder. Nixon reached out to Safire for his 1968 presidential bid. Here was part of Nixon's victory speech that Safire wrote, inspired by a campaign visit to a small town.

President RICHARD NIXON: Almost impossible to see, but a teenager held up a sign: bring us together. And that will be the great objective of this administration at the outset, to bring the American people together.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet Safire served a White House that often drove people apart. Safire left the Nixon administration in early 1973, before the Watergate scandal fully erupted, and he began writing periodic columns for the Washington Post. Arthur Sulzberger, Sr., then the publisher of the New York Times, tapped him to become the paper's first conservative opinion columnist. It caused a small uproar within journalistic circles, and he was seen as a Nixon apologist. Yet former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein said back in 2005, that Safire had provided hope to conservatives.

Mr. BEN STEIN (Former Nixon Speechwriter): Here he was, just sitting smack dab in the middle of this very liberal newspaper and giving no quarter, nor asking for any. And this was a great beacon to us in the years of darkness.

FOLKENFLIK: In 1978, Safire won a Pulitzer Prize for relentlessly questioning the finances of President Jimmy Carter's first budget director Bert Lance, who had to resign. But both being amiable sorts, the two men ultimately became friends.

The Clintons felt less warmly two decades later after Safire called then-first lady Hillary Clinton a congenital liar in print. Nonetheless, Safire was not a rigid partisan, nor were his interests limited to politics. He had a weekly column on language in the Times Sunday Magazine, and he also wrote a political dictionary and novels.

William Safire proved that you can indeed have a second act in American life, and a third and a fourth.

He is survived by his wife Helene, his children Mark and Annabelle, and a granddaughter.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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