Sunday, September 27, 2009

RIP, William Safire

One of the few bright lights from the New York Times in recent years has died. William Safire was a fantastic wordsmith and former speechwriter during the Nixon administration famous for coining many lines, including the famed "nattering nabobs of negativism" used by the then embattled Vice President Spiro Agnew.

Report here.
William Safire, a speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon and a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for The New York Times who also wrote novels, books on politics and a Malaprop’s treasury of articles on language, died at a hospice in Rockville, Md. on Sunday. He was 79.

The cause was cancer, said his assistant, Rosemary Shields.

There may be many sides in a genteel debate, but in the Safire world of politics and journalism it was simpler: there was his own unambiguous wit and wisdom on one hand and, on the other, the blubber of fools he called “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

He was a college dropout and proud of it, a public relations go-getter who set up the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate” in Moscow, and a White House wordsmith in the tumultuous era of war in Vietnam, Nixon’s visit to China and the gathering storm of the Watergate scandal that drove the president from office.

Then, from 1973 to 2005, Mr. Safire wrote his twice weekly “Essay” for the Op-Ed Page of The Times, a forceful conservative voice in the liberal chorus. Unlike most Washington columnists who offer judgments with Olympian detachment, Mr. Safire was a pugnacious contrarian who did much of his own reporting, called people liars in print and laced his opinions with outrageous wordplay.

Critics initially dismissed him as an apologist for the disgraced Nixon coterie. But he won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and for 32 years tenaciously attacked and defended foreign and domestic policies, and the foibles, of seven administrations. Along the way, he incurred enmity and admiration, and made a lot of powerful people squirm.
A gem of a speech Safire authored is one I read at the Nixon Library and was never delivered.
As Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon on July 21, 1969, his immortal words "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" became synonymous with the scale of the achievement.

However, in the event that astronauts Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin been stranded on the Moon, Nixon would have delivered a far more chilling address to the nation.

After calling their widows, he would have told the watching millions: "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.

"These brave men know there is no hope for their recovery but they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

"These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

"They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

"In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man."

The words are contained in a typed document entitled "In the event of Moon disaster" which was consigned to an archive until now – almost 40 years since the historic mission.

It is dated July 18, 1969 – two days before the landing was due – and was prepared by Nixon's speech writer, Bill Safire, and sent to White House chief of staff Harry Haldeman.

However, following the success of the mission, it was laid aside in Nixon's private papers in America's national archives.
Journalism has lost a giant today.

Rest in peace, Mr. Safire.

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