William Safire, who died today, was a breakthrough figure—the first professional Republican ideologue of his time to become a mainstream fixture in journalism. Indeed, when he was hired by the New York Times to write a column after his tenure as a speechwriter and intimate of the president in the Nixon White House, the shock and horror with which his new position was viewed in the Times newsroom and in the journalistic corridors of Washington were unprecedented in their ferocity. Safire himself said that people would barely look him in the eye in his place of employ for years.
He was blessed with a skin as thick as a rhinoceros’s, and he kept at what he was doing without apology or fear or regret. Over time, he revealed himself as a profoundly unorthodox columnist who combined hawkish views on foreign policy with a libertarian perspective on domestic matters—and a more uncompromising advocate for the state of Israel, its right to defend itself, and the importance of the Zionist experiment never walked this earth.
Safire famously said he wrote his column in 20 minutes, which is in part what gave his pieces their immediacy and force, as though his hand had untrammeled access to his thoughts and conveying them through touch-typing 750 words was all it took. He took far more care with the novels he wrote–among them the wonderful potboiler Full Disclosure, about a conspiracy to evade the requirements of the 25th Amendment, and the enormous bestseller Freedom, about Abraham Lincoln.
He achieved perhaps even greater popularity with his Times Magazine column on language, of which I was not an admirer–Safire was himself a writer of little elegance and served as an advocate for inelegant prose at a time when Americans really could have used a voice of authority that did not grant them unlimited permission to muck around with the rules of grammar and usage. In this way, actually, Safire revealed that the word conservative really didn’t properly apply to him. Rather, he was a patriot, an American nationalist, a Zionist, a civil libertarian, and a classic Washington type of a sort that has now almost entirely passed from the scene.
It is ironic that he leaves us on the eve of Yom Kippur, because he was for a very long time the host of Washington’s most exclusive annual Jewish ticket—a catered party to break the Yom Kippur fast. Most of the people who went didn’t actually fast. But they pretended that they had. Such is life in Washington.