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William Safire

When William Safire left his post as a speechwriter for President Nixon in 1973 and joined The New York Times as an opinion columnist, liberals were outraged as only liberals can be.

“There was lots of outrage” at the Times when Safire was hired, acknowledged veteran journalist Jack Rosenthal, who at the time worked in the paper’s Washington bureau.

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“Not so much because he was a conservative voice in this temple of the eastern liberal establishment, but that he had been a hired gun for the Nixon administration. They thought he was just a shill.”

As Safire himself would later write, “When I walked through the city room of the Washington bureau, silence fell.”

The lone member of the Washington bureau who would deign to eat lunch with Safire in those early days was reporter Martin Tolchin, an old friend.

A few months after Safire joined the Times, former Times reporter David Halberstam, a liberal who talked a good game of respecting opposing views, allowing for the widest range of free expression, blah, blah, blah, sent a letter to Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger in which he arrogantly demanded that Sulzberger jettison Safire’s column.

“It’s a lousy column and a dishonest one,” Halberstam wrote. “So close it. Or you will end up just as shabby as Safire.”

The “shabby” Safire would, of course, go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. And for more than three decades, until his death five years ago this week at age 79, he was one of America’s most widely quoted pundits, both in print and on television.

His polemical skills were complemented by his grammatical dexterity; indeed, his weekly “On Language” column became a Times fixture, as even those who could not abide Safire’s political views read it, respected it, and happily argued with it.

His books – several collections of his language columns, historical novels, a meditation on the biblical story of Job, and his magnum opus, Safire’s Political Dictionary – were all well received.

Safire was a writer whose columns never needed a “sell by” date. They remain fresh and relevant long after the personalities and events they discussed have faded into history.

In a column dated May 24, 1976 – a year before Israel elected its first Likud prime minister, six years before the first Lebanon war, eleven years before the first intifada – Safire complained about “Dovish writers and longtime liberals, including many Jews, who are uncomfortable with positions of strength, and who urge the beleaguered Israelis to adopt appeasement under the labels of ‘accommodation,’ ‘flexibility,’ and ‘risks for peace.’ ”

That was nearly forty years ago. How some things really never change.

In October 1977, after Jimmy Carter responded to critics of his administration’s decision to convene a U.S.-Soviet conference on the Middle East by claiming he’d accomplished a diplomatic miracle of sorts because the Soviet Union up until then had “never recognized the right of Israel to exist,” Safire, normally a man with little positive to say about the Soviets, took the ignoramus to school:

“Not only has the Soviet Union repeatedly recognized the right of Israel to exist, the Soviets were the first to recognize the state of Israel,” Safire noted.

“Through two breaks in diplomatic relations, the Soviets have continued to recognize Israel as a state, and therefore its ‘right to exist.’… Now the Official Correctors will explain that, um, you see, the president ‘misspoke.’ But he does not misspeak; he misthinks. His foot is not so much in his mouth as in his mind. Mr. Carter really believes he has bargained the Soviets into recognizing Israel’s existence.”

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