Daniel Schorr Remembers William Safire

Senior NPR news analyst Daniel Schorr remembers the life and influence of New York Times columnist and presidential speechwriter William Safire, who died Sunday. Schorr knew Safire as a longtime friend, acerbic and combative, but loyal.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Since the death of William Safire this past weekend, remembrances have been written by many of the friends and colleagues of the conservative newspaper columnist, former Nixon speechwriter and master wordsmith.

Our own Daniel Schorr remembered his friend earlier this week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and was among those who spoke earlier today at William Safire's funeral. He joins us in just a moment.

If you have a remembrance of Bill Safire, something he wrote or said that stuck with you; if you knew him, our phone number: 800-989-8255; email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr joins us from his home here in Washington, D.C.

And, Dan, I'm so sorry for your loss.

DANIEL SCHORR: Thank you very much, Neal. He was a good friend.

CONAN: Share with us, if you will, what you had to say at Bill Safire's funeral today.

SCHORR: Well, a little bit of it; some of it was rather intimate since there was mostly family, only a couple of very close friends. But what I said I can hear the voice of Bill resonating as I stand here, and what would he be saying to me? He'd be saying, nice you could come, Dan, but now make it short.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You're - go ahead.

SCHORR: Go ahead.

CONAN: No.

SCHORR: You go ahead. Go ahead, it's your nickel.

CONAN: All right. Well, you were colleagues at first, but also friends for 40 years. How did you first get to know him?

SCHORR: Well, I first got to know him when I was at CBS and covering things at the White House and he was a speechwriter for President Nixon at the time. And when I needed some information from the White House, I found very few people willing to talk to me. I was not very popular in the Nixon White House. And one of the few who would talk to me was Bill Safire. And so, we had a professional relationship to start and later developed into a very warm personal relationship, which our families became involved in. There was something quite special.

As I said at the funeral this morning - I said, a whole new note of what friendship means was introduced to me by Bill. I mean, he would help whenever he felt he had to help. If I wrote a book, he would manage to sneak into his word column a reference to the book, even saying the book was going to be a bestseller, which it never was.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SCHORR: He would take measures, small and large, to indicate to you that whenever your politics - and he was a conservative, he was also a libertarian, there were many things that we disagreed on. We probably disagreed on more than we agreed on. But the one thing that we agreed upon was the sanctity of friendship.

CONAN: Interesting. I want to play a clip of tape, just to - well, I want to hear Bill Safire's voice. I'm sure you do, too, today...

SCHORR: Yes.

CONAN: ...Dan. This is an interview he did with Terry Gross from NPR's FRESH AIR back in 1992 about perhaps his best-remembered line, which he wrote for a speech by then Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1970.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

TERRY GROSS: Do you think nattering nabobs of negativism is a bit too much on the alliteration?

Mr. WILLIAM SAFIRE (Speechwriter/Columnist): Well, I kind of liked it, I'll tell you the truth. I gave him another one, the hysterical hypochondriacs of history and...

GROSS: Wait, wasn't it the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history?

Mr. SAFIRE: Yes, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAFIRE: Right. There was a fourth H in there.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SAFIRE: But we didn't use it because, the 4-H clubs. So we didn't - we thought they would not like it. But alliteration was sort of thrust into the American consciousness by Warren G. Harding, who talked about not nostrums but normalcy, not experiment but equipoise, and he went on for about 10 more alliterations.

GROSS: So, you didn't think there were too many Ns in that?

Mr. SAFIRE: Well, it seems to have lasted.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Mr. SAFIRE: If it only had two, I don't think it would've gone. For example, Pat Buchanan came up with pusillanimous pussyfooters and that never went. I think it needed a third P.

CONAN: A third P.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The - loyalty is another thing that was very important to Bill Safire.

SCHORR: Yes.

CONAN: You wrote in your piece that you did on ATC back on Monday, that indeed, he left the Nixon White House in the midst of Watergate, but never turned on his former boss.

SCHORR: That's right. He told me a story about that. On the day that he left the White House, having agreed to become a New York Times column writer, on the day he left the White House, he was thinking of stopping off at the Oval Office on his way out to say a final goodbye to Nixon. And for some reason, nah, never mind, I won't. Had he had gone into the office at that point, he would have become a part…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHORR: …of the cover-up because Nixon was meeting at the time with John Dean and others, planning elements of the cover-up. And he thought it was always very interesting that - how close he had come to being present while the cover-up was going on. But then he wrote a book called "Before the Fall," about Nixon. But it was about the good things Nixon did before Watergate. And in the end, he used to go and see Nixon once every year and have a talk with him. When you are a friend of Bill Safire, it doesn't change. And although he had reason to rue his service to Nixon, which didn't help him any, he never turned his back on any friend.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Of course we're speaking with Daniel Schorr, NPR's senior news analyst. 800-989-8255, your remembrance of William Safire. Did you know him? Did something he wrote or said stick with you? We'll begin with Cy(ph). Cy with us from Akron, Ohio.

CY (Caller): Hi. Thank you. A friend of mine stumped him on the air with the word zoophagous, which is the Greek equivalent of animal eater or carnivore. I thought he was a brilliant man and I say God bless him, even though he promoted illegal and violent war for 41 years.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Cy. She's talking about, well, some of the policies that he favored and wrote about in the New York Times. Indeed he was, among other things, a supporter of the war in Iraq.

SCHORR: He was supporter of the war. He was supporter of any war the United States got involved in. But let me change the subject a little bit. He used to play with words in such a way that you can make fun of almost anything. I remember one day he was sitting at lunch with me and he looked at me and he said, Schorr, have you heard about this new organization? I said, what new organization? Well, it's called Mothers Against Dyslexia, D.A.M.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: He was a very, very funny man. Certainly his wit could punch but his wit was also extremely amusing from time to time. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. 800-989-8255. This is Gayle(ph). Gayle calling from Minneapolis.

GAYLE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi there.

SCHORR: Hello.

GAYLE: I just have an indelible memory of reading "Before the Fall" on Cape Cod at Corporation Beach. And I had just gotten a job as a part-timer at a law firm that turned out to employ Tom Charles Huston.

SCHORR: Oh my.

GAYLE: And my father sitting there, absolutely stunned and amazed that I would work for any place that will employ that man. And I've got Safire's book in my hand with this balanced view of Nixon, and my father, you know, chirping in my ear and just amazing, indelible memory. We were a family that read the New York Times, I mean almost from the cradle. And I really admired his work and I just - that is just an indelible memory. The author of the Huston Plan was down the hall from me. And my father could never get over it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHORR: So let me tell the others what you know, and not many know anymore, what was the Tom Charles Huston Plan. Tom Charles Huston was a staffer in the White House who wrote a plan, which included taking the CIA and the FBI, all the intelligence agencies, melding them into one operation to go after Nixon's enemies. That was called the Huston Plan and became a big element in the investigation of Watergate. So let's continue.

GAYLE: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Gayle, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate.

GAYLE: Best wishes.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Holly. Holly with us from Wilmington, Delaware.

HOLLY (Caller): Yeah. Hi. I wanted to ask Mr. Schorr something that - I don't understand why people in your generation with these great political differences maintain friendship when I don't feel like I see that amongst people who are younger. I would say - I can't remember who it was - but you know, other people who have passed recently who were in that, you know, over 70, and that people will speak at their funeral who you're like, oh, politically I'm surprised that person - you know, Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy maybe is an example. But I just feel like - I wondered if he had a reason, if it was a generational thing, if you see it as that, that people of different political backgrounds have a harder time...

SCHORR: I think it was partly generational, at least - it was part of our generation. But it was also very personal. He - while it is true that you could get Kennedy and Hatch and people to get together who can remain friends, even though they're not always on the same wavelength, it went a little further with my friend Bill Safire. It was something in which you could say that friendship transcends ideological difference. And it doesn't change you. You continue your - we would laugh at each other sometimes, saying, go ahead, Schorr, I'm sure you're going to say something liberal about this. Then I would laugh and say something about his conservative bent. But it - I have had no other relationship in all of my professional life that was anything like that.

It was somebody who would - if I was having trouble, making trouble for somebody in the White House, he would send me a monkeywrench just to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Holly, thank you very much for the call.

HOLLY: Sure.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you, Dan, William Safire was a major conservative voice in a liberal newspaper, the most important newspaper in the country for many years. He was also the word columnist in the Sunday Times Magazine and wrote many wonderful books about word origins, and the political dictionary that he wrote is, I think, still read by a lot of people.

SCHORR: Absolutely.

CONAN: What did he - what was he most proud of?

SCHORR: Oh, I think he was probably most proud of the fiction he wrote. He wrote a lot of word books and fact books and political dictionaries and so on. But then he wrote a Civil War book about Lincoln and he just wanted to try his hand at it and he did pretty well at doing it. He also wrote a book about the prophet Job. And I think when we would talk, he would say - as I said in, or you may remember having read, and I hope you read - and so on. I think it was his books drawn from the Bible or from the Civil War that probably pleased him personally almost more than anything.

CONAN: He also was not shy about taking shots at himself. And I would recommend for any readers out there of the New York Times, you can go on their Web site and get a copy of the editorial that they published, the column, one of Bill Safire's last, when he describes how to read a political column. And indeed, it's one of the best he ever wrote.

Dan, I wanted to end with this email we got from Michelle(ph) in Overland Park in Kansas. My family has long followed what we call the William Safire School of Driving, stemming from a piece he wrote about driving on the highway. He stated that he always let at least one person speed past him, bait for any awaiting law enforcement. For years as a child I thought William Safire was a driving instructor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHORR: I didn't know that one.

CONAN: Dan, thank you very much. And again, we're so sorry for your loss.

SCHORR: Very much my pleasure.

CONAN: NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr, remembering his friend William Safire, who died over the weekend from pancreatic cancer. He was 79 years old.

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