Late in January, when the 75-year-old William Safire writes his last op-ed column for The New York Times, he'll be able to take a certain rueful satisfaction in the memory of his harsh introduction to that paper.
In 1973 the Times had no right-wing commentator, the editors being unable to think of any conservative they could admire, much less hire. So the publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, engaged Safire, who had spent four years as a speech-writer in Richard Nixon's White House.
Most journalists considered him a disastrous choice. The Village Voice called Safire a "Nixonite hack." A famous Times graduate, David Halberstam, wrote to Sulzberger: "Safire ... is not a man of ideas or politics but rather a man of tricks."
But readers soon noticed that his column was often the liveliest piece in the paper, and the most informative. In 1978 he won a Pulitzer Prize with his stories about the financial machinations of Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter's budget director. Halberstam and many others finally came around. In 1990, when Time magazine called Safire "America's best practitioner of the art of columny," there were few who considered that judgement outlandish.
In his 770-word, twice-a-week columns, Safire has always been a libertarian conservative, but he's seldom been predictable. He relentlessly criticized his old White House colleague, Henry Kissinger, and he's been equally tough on the civil rights record of the current Justice Department.
Safire made enemies of both Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton; he infuriated the first president Bush by criticizing his betrayal of the Kurds, whose welfare is a Safire cause. The Columbia Journalism Review claims Safire shows "unconditional support for the state of Israel," but that's not true.
He's been Ariel Sharon's best friend in the American media but when the Israelis were caught spying on the U.S., no one was harder on them than Safire.
The great editor Harold Ross once warned that writing a column can lead to monomania, hysteria and sometimes madness: "When a columnist begins to take himself too seriously he is in grave danger." Safire avoids those traps with a light heart and a shrewd eye for his own pretensions. He sees the comic side of his fame. He's not modest, but modesty isn't an option in columning; people who nakedly display their opinions can't be shrinking violets. Safire, fortunately, has the kind of ego that encourages accomplishment rather than vanity or complacency.
All his life he's had a curious way of blundering into the path of celebrity. At Syracuse University in the 1940s he wrote a radio show starring another student, Dick Clark. Working for a public relations firm in the 1950s he hired Barbara Walters as a junior. In 1952 he lucked into the job of running the Eisenhower for President rally at Madison Square Garden, which (the legend goes) convinced Dwight Eisenhower he could be president.
When Safire was promoting an appliance firm at a 1959 exhibition in Moscow, he learned that Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet chairman, were to be there. He steered them toward his client's exhibit, where they argued about capitalism versus Communism in what became famous as "the kitchen debate." It promoted Nixon's candidacy by showing (his admirers claimed) that he could "stand up" to the Soviets.
In 1968 Safire helped Nixon become president and then joined his staff. He steered clear of the moral swamp around Watergate and in 1975 wrote a fascinating memoir of the Nixon years, Before the Fall. He made it a point of principle to remain a loyal Nixonite but sometimes suggested that Nixon was responsible for more serious crimes than Watergate, including some in which Safire was implicated. "Some guy broke into Watergate," he once remarked. "I wrote Nixon's wage-and-price-controls speech. Where is the greatest sin?"
While producing his column Safire has written novels, an absorbing study of The Book of Job, and, since 1979, a deftly crafted Sunday magazine piece, On Language, which will continue indefinitely. The language assignment has led to a dozen popular books bearing titles like Let a Simile Be Your Umbrella. He's become the best known of the many writers on usage trying to fill the gap left by the schools after they abandoned the subject.
In English usage as in politics, he believes that "You don't have to be solemn to be serious." That may sound obvious, but anyone who lives by it for three decades in the oppressive atmosphere of The New York Times deserves a special Pulitzer Prize for resilience and courage.