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Contentions

Remembering William Safire

Back in 2004, in a minor moment in the presidential campaign, John Kerry accused the White House of a misrepresentation “no matter how much they bluster and futz.” It is probably safe to say there were not many political columnists who recognized that Kerry, with his “futzing” accusation, had used a Yiddish word.

There certainly was only one columnist who wrote a column about it. Safire traced the Yiddish origin of the word, and then its first use in American English by James Farrell in his 1936 novel Studs Lonigan, then its appearance in Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run?, then noted a music critic writing that “you don’t want to futz with Shubert,” and finally—lest the entire Jewish vote go to Kerry—cited “futzing” statements by President Reagan and the Republican majority leader in New York.

Safire is also probably the only columnist who ever wrote an entire column on whether the proper reference to the Jewish Bible is the “Old Testament” or the “Hebrew Bible.” He concluded that the most accurate title might be “the Hebrew Bible, plus parts of Daniel, Ezra, Jeremiah and the others that were written in Aramaic.”

Most people will remember him as a New York Times columnist, since his column ran for 32 years and became an American institution, but he was probably the closest thing we had to a Renaissance man. He wrote 16 books on language, with titles such as Quoth the Maven and The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time. He was the author of a dictionary.

In addition to his books on language, he was the author of four novels, the editor of five anthologies, and the author of five other books on politics—30 books in all. And it is also safe to say there was no other political columnist who saw in the Book of Job a political parable, with contemporary relevance, and wrote a book about it (The First Dissident) that became a classic.

Not bad for someone who didn’t finish college. Safire attended Syracuse University but left after two years. He returned a generation later to deliver the commencement address, telling the graduating class that his honorary degree demonstrated there was hope for slow learners. He became a member of the Syracuse Board of Trustees, where he said his function was to represent the dropouts.

He once described himself facetiously as a neo-neanderthal, someone whose favorite day was the end of Daylight Savings Time, when he got the chance to turn back the clock. But his serious self-description was “libertarian conservative”—although his longtime championship of civil liberties, and his criticism of the Patriot Act, was admired by liberals as well.

He was a recorder of the American language, a chronicler of American history in fact-based novels, and a writer of one of the most enduring and widely read political columns in American history. But it is his book on the Book of Job that may ultimately be viewed as his most important contribution. It captures the literary brilliance, the challenges to theology, and the continuing political significance of one of the seminal works of the Hebrew Bible.

Ironically, it is also what gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that he was the furthest thing from a “rigid Republican.” At an earlier point in the 2004 election, when Howard Dean was the front-runner, Dean made a huge gaffe: attempting to appeal to Midwestern Christians before the Iowa primary, he described the Book of Job as his favorite one in the New Testament. He was one testament off, and his rivals savaged him for his misstatement. Safire came to his defense, devoting a column to Dean’s remarks, arguing he had in fact subtly described some of the complicated themes in the book. Safire did not use his erudition to politically pile on.

He would not have liked that last sentence, since his first rule of writing was “Remember to never split an infinitive.” And another was “And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction,” and that “a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.” But (if you will excuse a sentence starting with a conjunction), the sentence accurately describes his spirit, and our loss.



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