- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

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

“Bill was a throwback to an earlier era when the newsrooms were safe havens for the English language. He was a master of the language, and he searched out the elusive fact that brought his columns to life. He was a gentleman of the old school. I cherished his friendship, and I’ll miss him,” said Wesley Pruden, editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

Indeed, Mr. Safire was a master of words, almost a tyrant. He knew what stuck in the public craw. His famous four-word phrase - “nattering nabobs of negativism” - was bandied about by Mr. Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew of Maryland, and by an amused public at the height of the Watergate era and beyond.

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.

“This is definitely a celebratory moment, an opportunity to move on to another career,” Mr. Safire said in an interview with The Washington Times at the time, explaining his new calling as chairman of the Dana Foundation, a Manhattan-based philanthropy that funds neuroscience research.

“Although Mr. Hyde will close up shop, Dr. Jekyll will carry on,” the columnist added.

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

Mr. Safire was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006 by President George W. Bush, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., bestowed on those who have made “meritorious contribution” to the nation’s betterment.

“Washington and the nation lost a public treasure Sunday. So, too, did the English language,” wrote Robert Schlesinger, deputy editor of U.S. News & World Report on Sunday.

Yet Mr. Safire was not a particularly fancy guy.

A New York City 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.

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

A cultural moment was recorded, and Mr. Safire was subsequently 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.

While a contrarian with a spectrum of beliefs, Mr. Safire could be protective. In the worrisome time after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he offered staunch support to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, leading his Times colleague, columnist Maureen Dowd, to call him one of the “Rummy people.” Mr. Safire was also critical of certain aspects of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act.

Mr. Safire was a prolific writer, producing 28 books - including four novels, three reference books, two collections of essays on language and four volumes of political commentary.

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

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