A few years back, I chided Bill Safire via Times e-mail that he had erred in writing that "the best team" had won the World Series. He shot back that the comparative, my preference, was improper in this case because dozens of teams had started out the season. Anyway, he said, "Usage rules." The triumph of idiom was one of his core principles in regard to language. It always amused me that this conservative Eastern elitist was a deep-dyed populist when it came to grammar and usage, while I, liberal to radical on most issues, was a traditionalist in such matters. Perhaps it was a key to our long and I hope mutually admiring friendship that neither of us ever tried to convert the other.
In his grasp of political combat and public policy, Bill Safire was one of the smartest men I ever knew. His rigid loyalty to the Republican Party stood in contrast to his intellectual habits, which were liberal in the old-fashioned sense of being comprehensive and open to new information. At the same time, his combativeness and conservative sensibility animated his columns in stark fashion. He dismissed as "sociologists" the kind of conservative columnists who wants to be invited to the Kennedy School and to dinner with think-tank Democrats. Yet Bill never let his ideology interfere with his news judgment. Neither did he try to influence the news department or editorial page, but he was not slow to needle editors who moved lazily on a big story. When it came to sharing news, he was like his political opposite Scotty Reston in regard to generosity. Those were golden years in the Washington Bureau, when Scotty and Bill would pass through the newsroom dispensing to junior reporters the news tips they had garnered in their rounds. Then they'd let the kids take credit for rooting out the resulting story. Lunch with either man was for many of us a privilege of employment at the Times, though I could never break Bill of his fondness for the drab food at the Army-Navy Club.
Although a New Yorker to the bone, Bill had a homespun streak. He favored big dogs, casual clothes, and loved his place on the Shenandoah near Harper's Ferry. Lest anyone doubt his appreciation of fine things, he furnished his Times office, at his own expense, in excellent English antiques, Oriental carpets, and deep reading chairs with fat hassocks. I could imagine Henry Higgins strolling in, though I'm sure in Bill's mind it was tricked out for Edmund Burke.
Bill was generous also in practical advice for aspiring columnists and book writers. His "Safire's Rules" for opinion writers will, one hopes, transfer to the digital age. As for the books that he churned out for relaxation and money, he said you should always take the highest advance you could get up front and let the devil take the hindmost when it came to subsidiary rights. I shall miss him greatly.
Howell Raines is a former editorial page editor and executive editor of The New York Times who is currently working on a historical novel set in the Civil War.