William Safire

Last updated

William Safire
President Bush presents William Safire the 2006 President Medal of Freedom.jpg
Safire receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006
BornWilliam Lewis Safir
(1929-12-17)December 17, 1929
New York City, US
DiedSeptember 27, 2009(2009-09-27) (aged 79)
Rockville, Maryland, US
SpouseHelene Belmar Julius

William Lewis Safire ( /ˈsæfaɪər/ ; Safir; December 17, 1929 – September 27, 2009 [1] [2] ) was an American author, columnist, journalist, and presidential speechwriter. He was a long-time syndicated political columnist for The New York Times and wrote the "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine about popular etymology, new or unusual usages, and other language-related topics.


Early life

Safire was born William Lewis Safir in New York City, the son of Ida ( née Panish) and Oliver Craus Safir. [3] [4] His family was Jewish and of Romanian origin on his father's side. [5] Safire later added the "e" to his surname for pronunciation reasons, although some of his relatives continued to use the original spelling. [6]

Safire graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, a specialized public high school in New York City. He attended S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University but dropped out after two years. He delivered the commencement address at Syracuse in 1978 and 1990, and became a trustee of the university. [7]


William Safire memo to H. R. Haldeman to be used in the event that Apollo 11 ended in disaster. In the event of moon disaster.jpg
William Safire memo to H. R. Haldeman to be used in the event that Apollo 11 ended in disaster.

He was a public relations executive from 1955 to 1960. Previously, he had been a radio and television producer and an Army correspondent. He worked as a publicist for a homebuilder who exhibited a model home at an American trade fair at Sokolniki Park in Moscow in 1959—the one in which Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev had their Kitchen Debate. A much circulated black-and-white photograph of the event was taken by Safire. [8] Safire joined Nixon's campaign for the 1960 presidential race, and again in 1968. After Nixon's 1968 victory, Safire served as a speechwriter for him and for Spiro Agnew; he is known for having created Agnew's famous term, "nattering nabobs of negativism".

Safire prepared a speech called "In Event of Moon Disaster" for President Nixon to deliver on television if the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the Moon. [9] According to the plans, Mission Control would "close down communications" with the LEM and a clergyman would have commended their souls to "the deepest of the deep" in a public ritual likened to burial at sea. Presidential telephone calls to the astronauts' wives were also planned. The speech originated in a memo from Safire to Nixon's chief of staff H. R. Haldeman in which Safire suggested a protocol the administration might follow in reaction to such a disaster. [10] [11] The last line of the prepared text contained an allusion to Rupert Brooke's First World War poem "The Soldier". [11] In a 2013 piece for Foreign Policy magazine, Joshua Keating included the speech as one of six entries in a list of "The Greatest Doomsday Speeches Never Made". [12]

He joined The New York Times as a political columnist in 1973. Soon after joining the Times, Safire learned that he had been the target of "national security" wiretaps authorized by Nixon, and, after observing that he had worked only on domestic matters, wrote with what he characterized as "restrained fury" that he had not worked for Nixon through a difficult decade "to have him—or some lizard-lidded paranoid acting without his approval—eavesdropping on my conversations". [13]

In 1978, Safire won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary on Bert Lance's alleged budgetary irregularities; in 1981, Lance was acquitted by a jury on all nine charges. Safire's column on October 27, 1980, entitled "The Ayatollah Votes", was quoted in a campaign ad for Ronald Reagan in that year's presidential election. [14] Safire also frequently appeared on the NBC's Meet the Press .

Upon announcing the retirement of Safire's political column in 2005, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, said:

The New York Times without Bill Safire is all but unimaginable, Bill's provocative and insightful commentary has held our readers captive since he first graced our Op-Ed Page in 1973. Reaching for his column became a critical and enjoyable part of the day for our readers across the country and around the world. Whether you agreed with him or not was never the point, his writing is delightful, informed and engaging.

Safire served as a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board from 1995 to 2004. After ending his op-ed column, he became the full-time chief executive of the Dana Foundation, where he was chairman from 2000. In 2006, Safire was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.

Portions of Safire's FBI file were released in 2010. The documents "detail wiretapping ordered by the Nixon administration, including the tapping of Safire's phone". [15]

Writing on English

In addition to his political columns, Safire wrote a column, "On Language", in the weekly The New York Times Magazine from 1979 until the month of his death. Many of the columns were collected in books. [1] According to the linguist Geoffrey Pullum, over the years Safire became less of a "grammar-nitpicker," and Benjamin Zimmer cited Safire's willingness to learn from descriptive linguists. [16] Another book on language was The New Language of Politics (1968), [1] which developed into what Zimmer called Safire's "magnum opus," Safire's Political Dictionary. [17]

Political views

Safire described himself as a "libertarian conservative". A Washington Post story on the ending of his op-ed column quotes him on the subject:

I'm willing to zap conservatives when they do things that are not libertarian. [After the 9/11 attacks,] I was the first to really go after George W. on his treatment of prisoners.

After voting for Bill Clinton in 1992, Safire became one of the leading critics of Clinton's administration. Hillary Clinton in particular was often the target of his ire. He caused controversy in a January 8, 1996, essay when, after reviewing her record, he concluded she was a "congenital liar". She did not respond to the specific instances cited, but said that she didn't feel offended for herself, but for her mother's sake. According to the president's press secretary at the time, Mike McCurry, "the President, if he were not the President, would have delivered a more forceful response to that on the bridge of Mr. Safire's nose". [18]

Safire was one of several voices who called for war with Iraq, and predicted a "quick war" and wrote: "Iraqis, cheering their liberators, will lead the Arab world toward democracy." [19] He consistently brought up the point in his Times columns that an Iraqi intelligence agent met with Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 attackers, in Prague, [20] which he called an "undisputed fact". According to the CIA and the FBI, they were unable to confirm or deny the validity of this assertion. The source who made these allegations is alleged to have become concerned that such a meeting could have harmed his career. Nonetheless, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh do deny that the meeting took place. Safire insisted that the theory was true and used it to make a case for war against Iraq. He also incorrectly predicted that "freed scientists" would lead coalition forces to "caches [of weapons of mass destruction] no inspectors could find". [21]

Safire was staunchly pro-Israel. He received the Guardian of Zion Award of Bar-Ilan University in 2005. President George W. Bush appointed him to serve on the Honorary Delegation to accompany him to Jerusalem for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel in May 2008. [22]


Safire died from pancreatic cancer at a hospice in Rockville, Maryland, on September 27, 2009, aged 79. He was survived by his wife, Helene Belmar (née Julius); their children, Mark and Annabel; and granddaughter, Lily. [1] [23]


The following is a partial list of his writings:



Edited collections

Political works



  1. 1 2 3 4 McFadden, Robert D. (September 27, 2009). "William Safire, Nixon Speechwriter and Times Columnist, Is Dead at 79". The New York Times . Retrieved September 27, 2009.
  2. Safire, William (1986). Take My Word for It: More on Language. Times Books. ISBN   978-0-8129-1323-1. p. 185.
  3. "William Safire Biography". BookRags.com. Retrieved October 17, 2013.
  4. "No Bull Bill – People & Politics". Washingtonian. Retrieved October 17, 2013.
  5. Safire, William (1981). On language. Avon Books. p. 236. ISBN   0-380-56457-2.
  6. "Leonard Safir, 71, Early TV Producer And an Anthologist". timesmachine.nytimes.com. Retrieved January 14, 2022.
  7. Schmuckler, Carol (April 1, 1995). "The Bond of a Lifetime". Syracuse University Magazine. 11 (3): 40. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  8. "Safire, William. "The Cold War's Hot Kitchen," The New York Times, Friday, July 24, 2009". The New York Times. July 24, 2009. Retrieved October 17, 2013.
  9. "Scanned copy of the 'In event of moon disaster' memo" (PDF). National Archives and Records Administration.
  10. Jim Mann (July 7, 1999). "The Story of a Tragedy That Was Not to Be". L.A. Times. p. 5. Retrieved October 27, 2007.
  11. 1 2 William Safire (July 12, 1999). "Essay; Disaster Never Came". The New York Times. Archived from the original on October 29, 2007. Retrieved October 27, 2007.
  12. Keating, Joshua E. (August 1, 2013). "The Greatest Doomsday Speeches Never Made". Foreign Policy . Retrieved December 8, 2016.
  13. Safire, William (August 9, 1973). "The Suspicious 17; ESSAY". The New York Times.
  14. "Reagan campaign ad". Livingroomcandidate.org. November 4, 1979. Retrieved October 17, 2013.
  15. Gresko, Jessica (April 13, 2010) "William Safire's FBI File Unlocked", Associated Press
  16. Zimmer, Benjamin (September 28, 2009). "William Safire, 1929-2009". Language Log. Retrieved September 30, 2009.
  17. Zimmer, Benjamin (September 28, 2009). "Remembering the Language Maven". Word Routes: Exploring the Pathways of our Lexicon. Retrieved September 30, 2009.
  18. Safire, William (February 4, 1996). "On Language;Congenital, Liar, Punch". The New York Times.
  19. "Iraqis, cheering their liberators, will lead the Arab world toward democracy"."To Fight Freedom's Fight", The New York Times, January 21, 2002
  20. "Missing Links Found", The New York Times, November 24, 2003
  21. "Jubilant V-I Day", The New York Times, April 10, 2003
  22. Lake, Eli (May 13, 2008). "Bush Visit May Boost Olmert". New York Sun.
  23. Folkenflik, David. "Political Columnist William Safire Dies At 79". NPR. Retrieved October 17, 2013.

General and cited references

Related Research Articles

The silent majority is an unspecified large group of people in a country or group who do not express their opinions publicly. The term was popularized by U.S. President Richard Nixon in a televised address on November 3, 1969, in which he said, "And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support." In this usage it referred to those Americans who did not join in the large demonstrations against the Vietnam War at the time, who did not join in the counterculture, and who did not participate in public discourse. Nixon, along with many others, saw this group of Middle Americans as being overshadowed in the media by the more vocal minority.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pat Buchanan</span> American politician and commentator

Patrick Joseph Buchanan is an American paleoconservative political commentator, columnist, politician, and broadcaster. Buchanan was an assistant and special consultant to U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. He is a major figure in the modern paleoconservative movement in America, and his writings, morals, values, and strategic thinking have continued to influence many paleoconservatives.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">David Frum</span> Canadian-American political commentator

David Jeffrey Frum is a Canadian-American political commentator and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who is currently a senior editor at The Atlantic as well as an MSNBC contributor. In 2003, Frum authored the first book about Bush's presidency written by a former member of the administration. He has taken credit for the famous phrase "axis of evil" in Bush's 2002 State of the Union address.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Maureen Dowd</span> American journalist

Maureen Brigid Dowd is an American columnist for The New York Times and an author.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Peggy Noonan</span> American pundit and author

Margaret Ellen Noonan, known as Peggy Noonan, is a weekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and contributor to NBC News and ABC News. She was a primary speechwriter and Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan from 1984 to 1986 and has maintained a center-right leaning in her writings since leaving the Reagan administration. Five of Noonan's books have been New York Times bestsellers.

A "flip-flop", U-turn, or backflip is a derogatory term for a sudden real or apparent change of policy or opinion by a public official, sometimes while trying to claim that both positions are consistent with each other. It carries connotations of pandering and hypocrisy. Often, flip-flops occur during the period prior to or following an election in order to maximize the candidate's popularity.

Democrat Party is an epithet for the Democratic Party of the United States, used in a disparaging fashion by the party's opponents. While the term has been used in a non-hostile way, it has grown in its negative use since the 1940s, in particular by members of the Republican Party—in party platforms, partisan speeches, and press releases—as well as by conservative commentators and third party politicians.

In politics, a front-runner is a leader in an electoral race. While the front-runner in athletic events is generally clear, a political front-runner, particularly in the presidential primary process, is less so as a potential nominee may lead in the polls, have the most name recognition, the most funds raised, or a combination of these. The front-runner is most often declared by the media who are following the race and is written about in a different style than his or her challengers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Michael Gerson</span> American political speechwriter and columnist (born 1964)

Michael John Gerson is an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, a Policy Fellow with One Campaign, a visiting fellow with the Center for Public Justice, and a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter from 2001 until June 2006, as a senior policy advisor from 2000 through June 2006, and was a member of the White House Iraq Group.

A speechwriter is a person who is hired to prepare and write speeches that will be delivered by another person. Speechwriters are employed by many senior-level elected officials and executives in the government and private sectors. They can also be employed to write for weddings and other social occasions.

The Judson Welliver Society is a bipartisan social club composed exclusively of former presidential speechwriters in the United States. The group is named after Judson C. Welliver, the "literary clerk" to President Warren Harding, usually credited as being the first presidential speechwriter.

"Stay the course" is a phrase used in the context of a war or battle meaning to pursue a goal regardless of any obstacles or criticism. The modern usage of this term was popularized by United States presidents George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan.

Matthew N. Latimer is an American attorney, businessman, and former political speechwriter. Latimer is a founding partner of Javelin, a literary and creative agency located in Alexandria, Virginia that offers representation, digital, and public relations services. He also served in a variety of appointments during George W. Bush Administration.

"Wingnut", wing nut or wing-nut, is a pejorative American political term referring to a person who holds extreme, and often irrational, political views.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ben Zimmer</span> American linguist and lexicographer

Benjamin Zimmer is an American linguist, lexicographer, and language commentator. He is a language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and contributing editor for The Atlantic. He was formerly a language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine, and editor of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. Zimmer was also an executive editor of Vocabulary.com and VisualThesaurus.com.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Second inauguration of George W. Bush</span> 55th United States presidential inauguration

The second inauguration of George W. Bush as the 43rd president of the United States took place on Thursday, January 20, 2005, at the West Front of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. This was the 55th inauguration and marked the beginning of the second and final term of George W. Bush as president and Dick Cheney as vice president. The ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist administered the presidential oath of office for the last time before his death on September 3 that year. Attendance at the inauguration has been reported as being around 100,000, 300,000, or 400,000.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bring Us Together</span> American political slogan

"Bring Us Together" was a political slogan popularized after the election of Republican candidate Richard Nixon as President of the United States in the 1968 election. The text was derived from a sign which 13-year-old Vicki Lynne Cole stated that she had carried at Nixon's rally in her hometown of Deshler, Ohio, during the campaign.

On Language was a regular column in the weekly New York Times Magazine on the English language discussing popular etymology, new or unusual usages, and other language-related topics. The inaugural column was published on February 18, 1979 and it was a regular popular feature. Many of the columns were collected in books.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marc Thiessen</span> American conservative author, political appointee, and columnist (born 1967)

Marc Alexander Thiessen is an American conservative author, political appointee, and weekly columnist for The Washington Post. Thiessen served as a speechwriter for United States President George W. Bush from 2007 to 2009 and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from 2001 to 2006.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chicken Kiev speech</span> Speech given by U.S. president George H. W. Bush

The Chicken Kiev speech is the nickname for a speech given by the United States president George H. W. Bush in Kiev, Ukraine, on August 1, 1991, three weeks before the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine and four months before the December independence referendum in which 92.26% of Ukrainians voted to withdraw from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed 145 days after the speech, partially pushed by Ukraine. The address, in which Bush cautioned against "suicidal nationalism", was written by Condoleezza Rice—later Secretary of State under President George W. Bush—when she was in charge of Soviet and Eastern European affairs for the first President Bush. It outraged Ukrainian nationalists and American conservatives, with the conservative New York Times columnist William Safire calling it the "Chicken Kiev speech", named after a dish of stuffed chicken breast, in protest at what he saw as its "colossal misjudgment" for the very weak tone and miscalculation.