- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

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

A veteran of contentious political bouts that littered the news media marketplace for more than three decades, Mr. Safire was a self-described libertarian conservative who wielded lyrical prose, acerbic humor and canny political insight with unrelenting regularity in his syndicated Op-Ed “Essay” and “On Language,” published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

He produced more than 3,000 columns and became a fixture, a destination for readers who relished the pundit and punster, an elegant wordsmith with a strong sense of American tastes and culture.

His four-word phrase “nattering nabobs of negativisim” was bandied about by former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and an amused public.

When Mr. Safire retired in 2005 after 32 years in the essayist’s hot seat, Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. described it as an “unimaginable” moment for “the Gray Lady.”

The veteran newsman won his Pulitzer in 1978 for commentary; specifically, a series of columns on the dubious dealings of Bert Lance, then Office and Management and Budget director for President Carter. Mr. Lance resigned, though the pair remained friends in later years.

In 2006, Mr. Safire received from President George W. Bush the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, bestowed on those who make “meritorious contribution” to the nation’s betterment.

Yet Mr. Safire was not a particularly fancy guy.

A New York native and a college dropout, he was a deft marketing and public relations man in the 1950s who was drawn into politics during the Dwight Eisenhower era, organizing a major 1956 campaign rally in Madison Square Garden for the former war hero.

But a single, lucky photograph put him on the radar in 1959. Working public relations for a Yankee home-building concern during a trade fair in Moscow, Mr. Safire managed to snap a shot of Mr. Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev in rapt conversation about the amenities of an American model home.

A cultural moment was recorded, and Mr. Safire subsequently was invited to join the Nixon staff in time for the 1960 presidential campaign. By 1968, he was a special assistant to Mr. Nixon and was part of a White House speechwriting team that also included Patrick J. Buchanan.

Mr. Safir was a prolific writer, producing four novels, three reference books, two collections of essays on language and four volumes of political commentary.

He died in a hospice in Rockville. Mr. Safire is survived by his wife, Helene Belmar Julius; two children; and a grandchild.