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Pungent Pundit of Pugnacity

The unswerving William Safire.

William Safire, pungent pundit of pugnacity, impish impresario of impudence, limpid lookout for lexicography, knew his p.r. Just shy of his 30th birthday, in 1959, he gave a huge boost to one of his clients, the Florida manufacturer of a model home on exhibit at a Moscow trade fair, when he contrived to usher Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev into the kitchen showroom. There, Nixon memorably confronted Khrushchev with the question: "Would it not be better to compete in the relative merit of washing machines than in the strength of rockets?"

Safire's coup de theatre wasn't enough to put Nixon over the top in his run against John F. Kennedy the following year; Kennedy's missile gap outdid Nixon's appliance gap. But Nixon appreciated Safire's talent for militant pungency. Eight years later, Safire found himself on the White House speechwriting staff, where he placed in Spiro T. Agnew's mouth the declaration that liberals--ultraliberals, he preferred--were guilty of "pusillanimous pussyfooting on the critical issue of law and order." Agnew seemed to be pleased with this sort of polysyllabic perversity. In the White House, Safire leaped into the empyrean realm of phrasemaking immortality when the vice president spoke aloud his line about the Eastern seaboard's "nattering nabobs of negativism" and, less felicitously, certain unnamed "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history."

As Nixon crashed and burned in a conflagration of his own making, Safire stepped adroitly free to write a twice-weekly New York Times column. He started in 1973, when Nixon was still clinging to power, and went on to enjoy a 32-year run. Times management was in the early stage of its protracted retreat from a reputation, earned or not, as a president-killer--first Johnson, then Nixon. It didn't hurt the Sulzberger family's bid to be taken seriously by rightward-veering Washington that Safire's cheek made him far more quotable than any of his companions on the op-ed page.

At first, the word "flack" clung to him. Harrison Salisbury, who edited him, once said that when Safire started his column, "he was still writing like a p.r. flack for the Republican right wing." The late Leonard Silk, who wrote Times editorials on economic subjects and opposed Safire's getting a column, used the same word to describe him. Safire did nothing to reassure his detractors when, early in his columnate, he advised Nixon to "reestablish the confidentiality of the presidency" by making "a public bonfire of the tapes on the White House lawn."

Later, having discovered that he himself had been taped by Henry Kissinger, who had lied to him about it, Safire got in touch with the better angels of his libertarian streak. For the rest of his career, surveillance did not go over well with him. Still, he did Nixon an enduring favor by proliferating the "-gate" usage ("Koreagate" and "Lancegate," among many others largely forgotten), thus normalizing the depredations of the Nixon White House. What was Watergate if not the first in a long row of "-gates"?

Safire soon found the world swinging back to him and, in a way, to Nixonian anti-liberal Manichaeism with a human face. When Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, Safire's first reaction was that "the silent majority, like a great soaking-wet shaggy dog, romped back into the nation's parlor and shook itself vigorously." For years, he resisted the thought that there might be anything new, in any way other than cosmetic, about Mikhail Gorbachev.

Credit Safire with preserving his loyalties. For years, he relished making mincemeat of liberals as much as refusing to mince his puns. In 1994, Safire was calling the Clinton White House "the Whitewater House." He wrote of Agnew in 1995, "His two-timing was out of joint." The distinctive prose charm of his Times Magazine language columns stood him in good stead among readers who appreciated a writer who didn't sound like the magazine's general prosy run. In that sense, he had the quality he credited Nixon with after he died: "an inspiring resilience." Yet, when confronted with George W. Bush's invasions of civil liberty, he recoiled, in bursts of the contrarian vigor. 

He did so, however, without reconsidering his rock-bottom scorn of those nattering nabobs. A Times editor--Jewish, I must add, and no flaming liberal, I must also add--told me disdainfully in the mid-1990s that Safire's columns read as though dictated by Ariel Sharon. Well into 2003, he was touting a tight bond between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, insisting that "the F.B.I. should stop treating 9/11 as a cold case" and, in particular, that "an Iraqi spymaster in Prague may have helped finance the 9/11 attacks." Of this story, told by some in the CIA, of a hypothetical meeting between an Iraqi agent and Mohammad Atta in April 2001, the 9/11 Commission Report found no evidence, and I have heard identical words from the then-Czech foreign minister, Jan Kavan. But Safire never retracted.

To my knowledge, Safire didn't worry aloud about where his rambunctious anti-elitism had led, and might still lead. It's a great pity, but I find no record of anything he wrote or said about Sarah Palin, who is, in a way, Agnew with lipstick. But I'd like to think that, whatever Safire said, he would have said it with gusto.

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, is the author of many books on America and its culture, including The Sixties and Media Unlimited.