William Safire, who once upon a time was a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, is dead of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79.
The speechwriting gig put Safire on the map but he probably wouldn't have needed it. He was a brilliant writer and analyst of politics whose legendary columns were both literate and known for their strong conservative point of view.
Safire had a syndicated column with the New York Times for more than 25 years - the only conservative in a sea of liberal pundits - but made himself a must read by dint of his independence and a style of writing that used clever alliteration (he coined "nattering nabobs of negativism"), and a clipped phraseology that sounded at times like a machine gun being used against his latest target.
Robert McFadden in today's Times has a breezy, casual obit - surprising in its colloquial and familiar tone:
The columns, many collected in books, made him an unofficial arbiter of usage and one of the most widely read writers on language. It also tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns, like "the president's populism" and "the first lady's momulism," written during the Carter presidency.A man in love with the English language and American politics; it proved to be a deadly combination to his enemies and a joy to all.
There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama's fist bumps. And there were Safire "rules for writers": Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don't overuse exclamation marks!!
Behind the fun, readers said, was a talented linguist with an addiction to alliterative allusions. There was a consensus, too, that his Op-Ed essays, mostly written in Washington and syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, were the work of a sophisticated analyst with voluminous contacts and insights into the way things worked in Washington. [...]
He was hardly the image of a button-down Times man: The shoes needed a shine, the gray hair a trim. Back in the days of suits, his jacket was rumpled, the shirt collar open, the tie askew. He was tall but bent - a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on.