Sunday, September 27, 2009

William Safire (1929-2009)

By Michael J.W. Stickings

William Safire -- Nixon speechwriter, New York Times columnist, and conservative intellectual -- has died at the age of 79.

I'll admit, I never much cared for him -- or, rather, for his work:

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.

Well, fair enough, he certainly was more of a "contrarian" than most on the right, and he was certainly, at times, admirably independent in his thinking, and he did, I suppose, make some "powerful people squirm." But he was also, to the end, a Nixon apologist and, even with the GOP lurching ever further rightward, a dedicated partisan. Sure, he was more pleasant, less insane, and far more intelligent than the Glenn Becks and Sean Hannitys of the world, and that made him appealing both in print and on Meet the Press -- he was sort of like David Brooks, a conservative liberals could actually respect and occasionally agree with -- but his apparent reasonableness, and his broad appeal, only made him, in a way, more nefarious. However independent, however flexible, he was an ideologue, and, in a way, an effective propagandist for conservatism, if more Nixonian than the extremism of the movement today, a Republican even when the Republican Party should no longer have appealed to him. I think the same of Brooks and the same of George Will, another old-style conservative in the heart of the liberal media establishment, or what used to be, though Brooks remains a neocon and Will remains more of an ideologue than Safire ever was. Both have Safire's appeal, but, as with Safire, it would be wise not to let appearances get in the way of better judgement.

Still, Safire was always a good read, always provocative, and, more often than not, a valuable contributor to the public debate. Conservatives would have done well to have taken him more seriously, and the rest of us, I think, should have done the same. Even to those of us who generally disagreed with him on pretty much everything, he offered a great deal, often irritatingly so, and we knew, or at least I can say that I did, that he was often a deeply perceptive thinker who at the very least compelled us to reconsider our assumptions and opinions, and even our firmly held beliefs, and, I think, we were all stronger for it in the end. Political preferences aside, isn't that what you want in a columnist at a major newspaper like the Times? Safire frequently went too far, and I can't say that everything he said and wrote fit this noble purpose, far from it from my limited perspective, but at least he wasn't one of those pundits who only tell a narrow fringe what it wants to hear and who lash out at everything else. We all know there are far too many such pundits today.

And, of course, he was, most admirably, a linguist, a defender of the English language at a time when it was, and is, being torn apart. I learned not to split infinitives from my father, and I don't, but Safire taught us all, in his own distinctive way, to use language properly, to speak and write according to rules that ought to remain in force, and to stand firm against the dumbing down of society through the erosion of linguistic standards.

To boldly go? No, never. William Safire will be missed.

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