A sense of language rooted in lived experience

The Monitor’s language columnist salutes her hero, the late William Safire.

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A real gem of a guy has left us.

William Safire, speechwriter in the Nixon White House and later a conservative pundit at The New York Times, was also, until his death Sept. 27, the dean of language columnists in the American cultural space.

He may be best known for putting the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" into the mouth of Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1970. But his legacy for me was his demonstration that the intricacies of language can be the subject of commentary as lively as that about politics or any other topic.

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One of the heartening surprises of writing this column for over five years now has been to discover how many people, across all walks of life, are fascinated with issues of idioms, word origins, usage, and yes, even grammar.

I can only imagine what Mr. Safire's mail from readers was like. He had them organized into outfits like the Lexicographical Irregulars and the Squad Squad. The latter sought to root out redundancy in language.

Safire demonstrated that there is no substitute for being there. The kitchen in which Richard Nixon had his famous "kitchen debate" with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over communism versus capitalism was actually Safire's kitchen – in a certain sense.

In 1959, Safire, then a vice president of a public relations firm, found himself in Moscow on behalf of a client, a construction company that had built the "typical American house" at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Richard Nixon, then vice president, officially opened the show July 24, 1959.

Safire managed to corral Nixon and Khrushchev into the kitchen showroom together. Nixon seized the moment to engage the Soviet leader in debate. The photos from that episode became Nixon's credentials as a "cold warrior" during his 1960 presidential campaign. Safire was a part of that campaign, and of Nixon's second, successful bid for the White House in 1968.

Safire's columns "On Language" conveyed a sense of language rooted in lived experience. I remember hearing him at a conference explain why it's important to say that an indictment is "handed up." He mimed the action of the grand jury foreman handing the sealed envelope up to the judge on the bench.

During the Renaissance, sapphire was believed to cure anger and stupidity. Those are laudable goals for any columnist. Safire's columns on the alleged irregular banking practices of Bert Lance, President Carter's budget director, won a Pulitzer in 1978 and led to Mr. Lance's resignation. But after a federal jury cleared Lance, he and Safire became friends.

My favorite story about Safire, however, may be the one about how he made his way at the Times bureau in Washington. As a Nixon speechwriter who had won a plum assignment on the op-ed page, he had initially been greeted with hostility and suspicion. But that soon changed. At a bureau party, the small son of one of the reporters fell into a swimming pool. Safire, fully clothed, dived right in to rescue the lad. "From that moment on, Bill was fully accepted by the bureau," his Times colleague Martin Tolchin told The Washington Post.

It's hard not to like a man who's saved your child. But the episode makes another point as well: Often the right place for a writer is on the sidelines. Sometimes, though, you just have to dive right in.

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