Accessibility links

'On Language' and Politics, William Safire Has Written with Authority

With his "On Language" newspaper column and his critically-acclaimed book, Safire's Political Dictionary, just republished, William Safire is renowned as a wordsmith and political pundit. But Safire is also famous for having been President Richard Nixon's speechwriter, and for over three decades' worth of influential conservative columns he penned for the liberal New York Times newspaper. VOA's Adam Phillips has a profile.

William Safire was born on December 17, 1929, in New York City, and although he dropped out of college after two years, he went to work for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune newspaper. He left journalism while still in his early 20s, and went on to become a highly successful advertising and public relations executive.

In 1957, Safire met Vice President Richard Nixon on a trip to Moscow, and was later invited by Nixon to help him in his 1960 presidential bid, which he lost to John F. Kennedy. However, when Nixon was finally elected President in 1968, he hired Safire as his speechwriter. The transition from public relations executive to White House wordsmith was a smooth one for Safire, who says that, whether he was selling a product or an idea, the challenge was to influence American public opinion.

The White House was a good perch for Safire, who had always had a keen interest in political speech and catchphrases. He had spent much of the 1960s collecting the words and lore he would include in Safire's Political Dictionary, first published in 1968, and recently reissued in revised and updated form.

Safire also liked Nixon, both for his politics and his preferred oratorical style. "It had a march," he recalls. "[where you] know where you're going and build an argument. And then you stud it with little personal stories. The anecdote is a powerful thing."

Safire earned a place in his own dictionary, and in American popular culture, with a phrase he put into a speech for Spiro T. Agnew, Nixon's colorful – and ultimately disgraced – Vice President. He was writing a speech that would criticize those who thought America could never win the Vietnam War as defeatists.

"I remembered a [President] Eisenhower usage where he talked about 'prophets of doom and gloom.' So I came up with 'nattering nabobs of negativism.' It caught on, and I've been living with it ever since."

The Watergate scandal, which involved a cover-up of illegal activities during Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, eventually forced Nixon to resign. Fortunately for Safire, a month before the scandal broke, the New York Times, whose opinion page was known for being predictably liberal, offered him a prominent regular column.

"What they wanted was a different point of view on the page," Saffire recalls. "I had come out of the Nixon White House, and so I presented a totally different point of view. I took issue with the Times editorial policy and the Times liked that. And I did that for 35 years."

Safire is known for taking forceful conservative positions on most issues and has never minced words when opposing others' views. His scathing commentary on Bert Lance, a high-level Carter Administration official, garnered him a Pulitzer Prize in 1978. But Safire says he is careful not to make his criticism "personal."

He was inspired in this attitude by President Nixon himself, who had a famously sour relationship with the press. Safire recalls the day in August 1974, when Nixon had just resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandals. He assembled his White House staff for the last time, and told them, never to forget that, "if you hate the people who hate you, you destroy yourself."

"That was a fundamental and profound lesson that a lot of us took away from that," says Safire. "And so when I since have criticized or blasted the policies of various political figures, mainly on the left, I remember 'you don't hate them,' and they are not hateful people. You can zap somebody, but you don't go for the throat."

Safire says a good political columnist "checks out his thinking and he checks out his facts. And because you are a columnist or a media factor, you can get through to people and you can ask them tough questions. You don't have to slam them against the wall."

He adds that the trick for a columnist is to challenge his or her source. "And then you go to your readers and say 'this is what he said and this is what I think about what he said.' That's the glory and usefulness of political commentators."

In 1979, the New York Times invited Safire to write a weekly column on the English language, which it called simply "On Language." Safire's observations on spoken and written English would become a popular mainstay for the newspaper's Sunday magazine, as well as a place for him to float ideas, make queries, and to challenge readers.

"And I would say, for example, 'Why do you have to say 'different from' rather than 'different than?' Who says? And then you'd weigh it and say 'usage has changed' or say 'it's good to stick to this because it's more precise.' And that hooked me. I would keep getting fed by the audience. And that, of course, gives me another column," he adds with a smile.

Safire ended his political column in 2005 and the next year was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, for his lifetime achievements.

But Safire is not resting on his laurels. He continues his weekly column "On Language" and is active as chairman for the Dana Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes research on the human brain, an organ Safire characterizes as "a universe each of carries around with us."

Previous American Profiles