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Monday, September 28, 2009

Remembering William Safire

Bill Safire passed away yesterday. He was a PR man turned Nixon speechwriter turned token conservative New York Times columnist.

His legacy in political journalism was a mixture of political courage (e.g., his outspoken criticism of the PATRIOT Act) and fascination, if establishmentarian coziness, in the halls of power. He was a captive of personal agendas (what columnist isn’t?), but more often offered provocative and interesting viewpoints. Perhaps his more important legacy was as a careful and joyful practitioner of public communications, and as a close observer of the uses and abuses of language – semantic, syntactic, political and cultural.

I first consciously became aware of Safire’s wonderful wit and fearless intellect when I encountered one of his books in my teens. During my childhood, dictionaries were very important. (My father was a lexicographer and his magnum opus, a new Modern Greek-English dictionary on the principles of the Oxford English Dictionary, was a constant in our family’s life.) After reading my sister’s copies of Ayn Rand and old MAD magazines from the late '60s and early '70s, I developed a precocious interest in politics. So my personal interest and my family’s unique cross to bear intersected perfectly when I discovered Safire’s Political Dictionary (third edition) in 1978, his lexicon of political coinages, phrases and terms. Like millions of others, I later enjoyed and learned from the wide range of his writings – the political and “On Language” columns in the NYT, memoirs, novels, and collections of quotations and speeches.

In many mediums, Safire shared his boundless joy in the creative use of language for persuasion, edification and fun. Though he sometimes erred (and erred badly on the Iraq war), he used his intelligence and experience to keep Washington power brokers (of whom he became one) a little more honest.