Goodbye, to self-described libertarian

CNJ staff

Syndicated political columnist William Safire, 75, is retiring his op-ed column, but he will continue to write his “On Language” essays for the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

“It’s time to leave when you’re still hitting the long ball and have something else you want to do,” he said when he announced his retirement from column writing in November. Since beginning his column in 1973 for the New York Times, Safire has become an institution, both in print and as an always-witty TV curmudgeon.

“Safire plans to become the full-time chief executive of the Dana Foundation, a philanthropic organization interested in brain research and immunology, where he has been chairman for four years,” reported The Washington Post.

Safire has authored several novels, including “Freedom: A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War” (1987) and “Full Disclosure” (1978), about political intrigue in the 1970s, as well as numerous grammar books. So perhaps he will grace us with more volumes.

The 1978 edition of “Safire’s Political Dictionary” said of “pundit,” “The word lends itself to spoofing, since its first syllable is about wordplay. Time (magazine) in the fall of 1977 headed an article about a conservative, pun-loving columnist: ‘Punder on the right.'”

A Nexis search reveals the reference actually was to Safire — an inveterate punster. It’s a good description of him.
Safire began his career as a reporter with the New York Herald, then went into corporate publicity. He helped stage the famous 1959 “kitchen debate” at a Moscow cultural fair between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev. Safire borrowed a camera to make sure his company’s washing machine was in pictures of the event.

He went to work as a speechwriter for Nixon in the 1960 and 1968 presidential campaigns, then worked in the Nixon White House from 1969 to 1973. Perhaps his most memorable phrase was Vice President Spiro Agnew’s description of media critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

After taking up column writing, he won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on a scandal involving Bert Lance, President Jimmy Carter’s budget chief. National Public Radio noted in a Jan. 20 story that Lance and Safire later became friends.

We didn’t always agree with Safire, such as on his support for the Iraq war, but we agreed with his overall political philosophy, which he himself sometimes described as “libertarian.” He especially was a watchdog for free speech and privacy rights.

We’ll miss his wit, insider sources and savvy. Good luck, Bill.