William Safire: From Nixon speechwriter to New York Times columnist

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of writer William Safire, born William Safir in New York City—he added the “e” to make the pronunciation easier. His father was a successful thread manufacturer but when he was four his father died of lung cancer and life got harder. His mother told her sons: “All you have in this world is blood and friendship.”

Young William was smart, a good writer, and he practiced his writing with long, funny letters to his brother in the Army. He graduated from the Bronx School of Science and got a scholarship to Syracuse University. But after two years, he decided that school was not as interesting as his summer job working for Tex McCrary, a columnist and radio and TV host. He said he realized that he “could get a better education interviewing John Steinbeck than talking to an English professor about novels.”

He interviewed movie stars and gangsters. He organized the rally that helped convince Eisenhower to run for the presidency. He said, “This is what it’s all about. From what I could see, you could get a bunch of people together, whip up the press and have some impact.”

He set up the “kitchen debate” in Moscow, between Nixon (then vice president) and Khrushchev. The debate took place in a model home built by All-State Properties — Safire was their public relations agent. . . .He organized the debate in order to get publicity for his company, and he took a famous photo of the event. Nixon was so impressed that he hired him for his 1960 presidential campaign.

Nixon lost but Safire stuck with him and was the main speechwriter for Spiro Agnew in the 1968 presidential campaign, and then for the Nixon White House. He and fellow speechwriter Pat Buchanan loved to write speeches full of linguistic twists. In a speech that Safire wrote for Agnew, he said: “In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.” Agnew had plenty of other alliterative insults for critics of Nixon’s foreign policy, many of them written by Safire, including “vicars of vacillation,” “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “supercilious sophisticates,” and “the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

After the Watergate scandal, Safire resigned and got a job as a White House correspondent for The New York Times. There, he was able to use his political savvy as well as his love of words — he started a column called “On Language,” which was published weekly in the New York Times Magazine from 1979 until his death, in 2009.


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