Don't Canonize William Safire, He Could Never Live Down His Nixon Roots

Tricky Dick's poison pen.

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By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

A newly minted blogger in this space feels compelled to say something about the late William Safire, a consummate Washingtonian with friends on both sides of the street. The Samuel Johnson of political language? There's a case to be made for that, and nobody would make it better than the dead language maven himself. Safire's death follows Sen. Edward Kennedy's by one month, and between these two major figures passing in their 70s, Washington has taken on a great deal of generational loss in a short time. This bipolar city does have a heart, after all, and it is heavy.

My friend, author and editor Robert Schlesinger, has some kind and eloquent words to say about the former speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon. But let me make this perfectly clear: writing White House speeches for "a very good hater" (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Johnson) is not honorable, then or now. W.B. Yeats would be hard-pressed to fit it into his memorial poem praising a well-lived life: "Soldier, scholar, statesman, he." Nixon was a curse on our body politic and his evil deeds live long after him: Afghanistan as the new Vietnam, anyone?

Don't let it be forgot that Nixon paved the path Safire took to the New York Times. Nor should we forget that as a columnist he wrote apologias for Nixon, even to the end. One of my proudest moments as a journalist was being published next to Safire on the Miami Herald op-ed page when Nixon died in the 1990s. Safire said "RN" really cared about the kids, meaning my generation. I wrote that Nixon and Watergate despoiled politics for schoolchildren and young people who never had any innocence to lose, thanks to the president and his men.

Perhaps most lasting, Safire's clever and immortal phrase, "nattering nabobs of negativism," is inscribed on our cultural psyche, dividing us left and right. Spiro Agnew delivered it as vice president, but it is all Safire—a sharp wound that cut deep and bleeds still. It opened up a line of hostile questioning of the so-called "liberal media" which has worked very well for the last 40 years. The sad thing is the Fourth Estate never responded vigorously to this insidious charge—in fact, acted a bit guilty—and lost some of the public trust because of it.

Safire was a man's man. Surely a scintillating conversationalist. The best friend of another quintessential Washingtonian, Martin Tolchin, formerly a Timesman and then my editor at The Hill. (Marty once fondly said he was the only one who would lunch with Safire when he first joined the Times bureau.) But to this woman wordsmith, Safire was and shall always be this: Nixon's speechwriter.

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