Journalist, Nixon Speechwriter William Safire The New York Times columnist and political spitfire, who died Sept. 27 of pancreatic cancer, left behind an indelible legacy in speechwriting and political reporting. We remember Safire with a conversation from the Fresh Air archives.
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Journalist, Nixon Speechwriter William Safire

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Journalist, Nixon Speechwriter William Safire

Journalist, Nixon Speechwriter William Safire

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William Safire died yesterday of pancreatic cancer. He was 79. He described himself as a write-wing pundit with four-square opinions on anything you can name. Safire wrote a syndicated political column for the New York Times from 1973 to 2005 and won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1978. From 1979 until earlier this month, he wrote a language column for the Times Sunday magazine. So Safire could zap politicians, not just for their positions, but for how they stated those positions. Safire had also been a speechwriter for President Nixon. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Safire in 1992.

I asked him about a famous line he wrote for Nixon's Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, in 1970 for an address to the California Republican State Convention in San Diego. The line was: In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.

(Soundbite of past interview)

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

Mr. WILLIAM SAFIRE (Political Columnist, New York Times): Well, I kind of liked it, I'll tell you the truth. I gave him another one, the historical hypochondriacs of history and…

GROSS: Wasn't it the hopeless historical hypochondriacs of history?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAFIRE: Yes, right - right. There's a fourth H in there.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SAFIRE: But we didn't use it because the 4-H clubs. We did - we thought they would then 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 he only had two, I don't think you would've gone… For example, Pat Buchanan came up with pusillanimous pussyfooters and that never went. I think it needed a third P.

GROSS: Well, of all the lines you've written for, you know, in speeches, do you have favorites that stand out in your mind? Ones that you're particularly proud of?

Mr. SAFIRE: You're asking me to break the code, so you can't break the code.

GROSS: …You know what - what - explain the code.

Mr. SAFIRE: The code is unless the principle, specifically cites your work as coming from you, then you stand there and say, I worked with so and so on that speech. And it's his speech or her speech.

GROSS: And what is the function of that code?

Mr. SAFIRE: Oh, that's the law of the speechwriters. And the function of it is the speechwriter should not get the credit for the speech, because after all, although a writer might create the words, they are accepted or rejected by the person responsible for them. And so, I think when a speechwriter today gets the focus placed on him or her, it somewhat means the speaker.

GROSS: In your book about Job, you write: I started my journey with doubt in my faith and have come out with faith in my doubt. And then you kind of parenthetically say, that's a great speechwriter's trick, you know, to…

Mr. SAFIRE: That's the turn around line.

GROSS: The turn around, right. What are some of the other great speechwriter tricks?

Mr. SAFIRE: Well, the most famous one of all those lines is let us not fear to negotiate but let us, you know, let us not negotiate out of fear. Kennedy used to use those contrapuntal - or Ted Sorensen used to suggest them fairly frequently, and so did Churchill. The tricks, the anaphora, the repetition of a particular phrase or line, the beginning of let us - Lincoln used let us do this, let us do that and everybody else since then have been using it. There are various oratorical tricks. But frankly, the tricks are not what make a speech. It's first, what do I have to say and how can I move people with this.

GROSS: You know, when you worked with the Nixon and Agnew administration, they were very outspoken in putting down the press. You're member of the press now. I don't know if you wrote any of the lines particularly addressed to criticizing, you know, the press, but do you feel like the things that you used to criticize?

Mr. SAFIRE: Well, I never criticize the press. I only criticize the media. There is a…

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Shall we split hairs over that one.

Mr. SAFIRE: Oh, listen that - that's my - you're talking about my dodge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAFIRE: And I think quite frankly, the media are criticizable(ph). I construe that is plural. And the press is criticizable, particularly by the press and by the media. That's the best kind of criticism. We zap each other for being a bunch of liberals or a bunch of hidebound conservatives. And this is nice, self-cleaning process. When politicians criticizes us, and use our lack of popularity - which is almost down as low as politicians - and appeal to people by saying that, you know, the damn media won't let me say this, or won't cover me. That's a device, and we have to recognize it and let it, you know, those peas roll off our knife.

GROSS: William Safire, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SAFIRE: Thanks very much, Terry.

GROSS: William Safire recorded in 1992. He died yesterday at the age of 79.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, I'm Terry Gross.

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