William Safire (1929-2009)

Bill Safire died today.  As self-styled wordsmiths, opinionators and pundits we are all the poorer for his passing. Safire could be a maddening soul–he was not a party man but rather the creature of his own principles, civil liberties first and foremost among them.  As such, he could not be depended upon by left or right to deploy his elegant prose on demand.  He followed his own star.

I had the good fortune to get to know Mr. Safire a little over the past few years, and am personally feeling a little short-changed this evening.  I had hoped for more.  He was, as you might imagine, not a warm and fuzzy type.  You needed to bring your A game to any encounter with him, or risk him shooting you a look and saying, “That’s enough time”–in other words, it’s time for you to leave.  But he was also insightful and witty and generous.  Conversations could be like seminars, not only on events but also on the proper way to describe them.

It is comforting that much of Bill Safire survives in his extraordinary corpus of columns and books.  I have had reason to do a careful reading–and re-reading–of Before The Fall this year. It’s quite the cautionary tale of life in the Nixon White House.  And by chance, I happened to spend a fair amount of time last week sifting through his 1974-75 columns.  As the country endured Watergate and all the associated fall out through the first year of the Ford presidency, you might expect Safire to have gone out of his way to support the new administration.

He did no such thing.  He hammered away week in and week out as those all too human beings–many of whom had been his colleagues–attempted to govern.  Reading the columns in sequence makes a fascinating chronicle of our country struggling through a terrible time politically, economically, socially–in almost any way you can imagine.  Right or wrong, Safire stuck to his guns, as he would in the decades to follow, defending his principles in that studied and refined prose that is a lesson to all of us. 

After I did my research last week I had some questions for him, but as he might have said had I called tomorrow to ask for a meeting, “Does this have to happen? It’s really all in the columns.”  Indeed, it is.  That is something for which we can all be grateful.