Commentary Magazine


Safire and the Day of Atonement

John, you’ve  already noted the irony of William Safire’s death on the eve of Yom Kippur, given that Safire was known for his annual break-the-fast party. In addition to the party, there are at least two more interesting links between the late columnist and speechwriter and the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar.

In 1968, while on the Nixon presidential campaign trail, Safire told Richard Nixon that he would not be working the next day because of Yom Kippur.  Nixon’s somewhat condescending reaction was “You go all the way, the cap, the shawl, and everything? Good for you!”

Two years later, Safire was a White House speechwriter, on loan to Vice President Spiro Agnew for the off-year election campaign. Agnew was barnstorming the country, giving a series of hard-hitting campaign speeches, and Safire was contributing catchy phrases like “nattering nabobs of negativism” to describe the liberal cultural elite. The day before Yom Kippur, Safire left the Agnew campaign for 36 hours to fly cross-country to Washington, arriving at Adas Israel synagogue on Connecticut Avenue just in time for the Kol Nidre service that signals the onset of the holiday.

Unfortunately, the synagogue’s rabbi considered himself a bit of a political speechwriter as well, and gave an overly political and unbecoming sermon that evening condemning “those who would use alliteration to polarize our society.” As Safire put it in his book Before the Fall, “that’s all I needed; the ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ was not a sin I had come to atone for.” Yitzhak Rabin, who was the Israeli ambassador to Washington at the time, comforted Safire after the sermon and later told the rabbi that he felt the attack was inappropriate, something for which Safire was forever grateful.

Two and a half decades later, Safire and Rabin were reunited at a dinner at the Israeli embassy. The two men got into a heated discussion about the Oslo peace process and, according to Safire, “the man sitting at the table between us—Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who never breaches protocol—blanched at the seeming heatedness of the exchange.” Rabin then told the story of that long ago Yom Kippur and explained to Christopher, “That’s why we can get angry with each other today without getting angry with each other.”

The famously uptight Christopher probably remained mortified nonetheless, but Safire recounted that he “walked out of the Ambassador’s residence that night with a good, hot column for my paper and a good, warm feeling for Yitzhak Rabin.”