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Conservative Speechwriter, Columnist William Safire Dies

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William Safire, the renowned wordsmith and conservative political pundit has died of pancreatic cancer in a Rockville, Maryland hospice at the age of 79.

William Safire was most famous for having been former U.S. President Richard Nixon's speechwriter, and for the three decades' worth of influential conservative columns he penned for the liberal New York Times newspaper.

Safire was born on December 17th 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 twenties, 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 told VOA in 2008 that both jobs were similar in many ways.

"... you dealt with how to change American public opinion," Safire said. "Whether you were selling [a] product, or whether you were selling an idea. When you are selling ideas, that's what politics is about."

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 in updated form. But Safire also liked Nixon, both for his politics, and his preferred oratorical style.

"It had a march. Start off with a lead and know where you're going and build an argument through. And then you stud it with stories, with little personal stories," Safire said. "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.

"... And I was looking for some criticism for people who were defeatists, who thought we could never win in Vietnam," Safire said. "So I came up with 'the nattering nabobs of negativism'... and I've been living with it ever since!"

The Watergate scandal - involving 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 newspaper, whose opinion page was known for being predictably liberal, offered him a prominent regular column.

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

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

" And so when I since have criticized or blasted the policies of various political figures, mainly on the left, you don't hate them, and they are not hateful people - 99 percent of them - and you don't get carried away. You can zap somebody, but you don't go for the throat," Safire said.

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 'Why do you have to say 'different from'? 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," Safire said.

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 never rested on his laurels. He continued his weekly column "On Language" until two weeks before his death, and had been active as chairman for the Dana Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes research on the human brain - an organ Safire once characterized as "a universe each of carries around with us." William Safire is survived by his wife, their two children, and a grandchild.