RIP William Safire

The great speechwriter and columnist died of cancer Sunday.

By + More

By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Washington and the nation lost a public treasure Sunday. So too did the English language.

William Safire, the former Nixon speechwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, died of cancer Sunday. He was 79.

I met Safire several times over the years, mostly in the company of my late father at meetings of the Judson Welliver Society of former presidential speechwriters, which he stewarded for a quarter century or so. Bill always spoke softly and with the same care and wit evident in his writings.

Bill would emcee the Welliver meetings, most often at the headquarters of the Motion Picture Association of America as guests of Jack Valenti, the late LBJ speechwriter. Safire would mix amusing asides with introductions of various representatives from different administrations.

He was always friendly but I still had some trepidation when I first contacted him after deciding to write a book on the history of presidential speechwriters. Safire was a Washington big dog a couple of times over—first as presidential aide, then as a Times columnist. It would have been easy for him to be too busy to be helpful. But he never lost his humility, his perspective, or his appreciation for history, and especially the history of language and its uses.

He was welcoming and encouraging from the first, sharing his time, his memories, and access to his papers, which he had donated to the Library of Congress. And as importantly he shared his list of former speechwriters and their contact information. His files produced not only speech drafts and memos, but journal entries that provided enlightening and amusing details about life in the White House. I even came across a memo he had written to Nixon during the turmoil of Watergate, advising him on a speech to the nation deploring divisiveness and saying that he had learned his lesson and was prepared to lead the country in getting past partisan nastiness. When Nixon gave the speech, Safire used his Times column to praise the message. When I asked Safire about apparent conflict of interest, he could have gotten defensive or, even, prevented me from using the story (the terms of access to his papers included getting his permission before citing or quoting anything). Safire of course answered the question directly and told me about the reprimand he had received from his Times editor over the incident.

One of my favorite stories that I didn't get in to White House Ghosts was a tale I heard Safire recount numerous times. Nixon assigned Safire a Law Day speech and instructed his speechwriter to consult with Chief Justice Warren Burger. Safire was on the phone with Burger, taking notes on the speech, when his secretary came running in and frantically signaled that Nixon was on the phone. This, Safire would recount, was his greatest moment of power in Washington: He put his hand over the receiver and told his secretary: Tell the president I'll call him back--I'm on the other line with the chief justice.

"I would like to have been what Presidentologists call an 'intimate adviser,' but Haldeman explained once Nixon considered me too 'brittle'—the president's word for someone who would not hang tough over the long haul—and too much a loner," Safire once wrote. "No complaints: I am better off in print than in court or in jail."

He was—to the great benefit of the public and of history.

  • Check out our political cartoons.
  • Become a political insider: Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly, our digital magazine.
  • Follow Robert Schlesinger on Twitter.