William Safire has died.
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 pancreatic cancer, said Martin Tolchin, a friend of the family.
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.”
Bruce Drake at Politics Daily
Richard Rushfield at Gawker:
Safire served on Nixon’s 1960 campaign and later on the White House staff where he was noted for having crafted Spiro Agnew’s celebrated catch-phrase attacking the media, labeling the press “nattering nabobs of negativism”; a slur which has yet to be topped in catchiness to this day.
After leaving the White House he became the New York Times‘ token conservative columnist, a slot he occupied until 2005. He also wrote the weekly “On Language” column, obsessed with tracing the origins of contemporary usages, as well as several books on the mother tongue.
With the death of Irving Kristol, Safire makes the second Big in the 70’s, conservative columnist to pass away in recent weeks.
Safire’s passage certainly marks a third point in the passing of old conservatism from the scene in America, following on the deaths of Irving Kristol most recently, and Robert Novak earlier this summer. The principled conservatism of old was seen in Safire, who as the early take on his obit at the Times notes, was a strong critic of the Bush administration’s attempts to pillage our constitutional liberties. Perhaps this was why:
“After Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, hired Mr. Safire, one critic said it was like setting a hawk loose among doves. As Watergate broke, Mr. Safire supported Nixon, but retreated somewhat after learning that he, like others in the White House, had been secretly taped.”
Replacing that old conservative order so far seems to be the likes of Jonah Goldberg, Sarah Palin, Ross Douthat, and Glenn Beck. These agent provocateurs all seem more inspired by the paranoid example of Pat Buchanan, who also worked in Nixon’s speechwriting dugout, than Safire. And just as old assets like real estate have been devalued in our tough economic times, it seems to me that conservatism has not yet grown a new crop of eloquent thought leaders who rely more upon their wits and intellect in our national dialog, rather than rank partisanship and demagoguery.
So long Bill, you’ll be missed.
UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan
Michael Stickings at Moderate Voice
UPDATE #2: Howell Raines at TNR