WILLIAM SAFIRE is a man of many words. (After all, he pumped out his just-published 1,125-page Civil War novel, ``Freedom,'' in his spare time, while writing three columns a week.) But he's also a man of action.
Consider, for instance, the company picnic at which he first began to win over a lot of people who had no use for him.
It was 1974, and Mr. Safire had recently become a columnist for the New York Times. Angry columns and letters pointed out that he had written the famous ``nattering nabobs of negativism'' attacks on the press for then-Vice-President Spiro Agnew. His co-workers tagged the former Nixon speechwriter a knee-jerk Watergate apologist. They paid him as little notice as possible.
It was impossible, however, not to notice Safire, dressed in a suit, streaking across the lawn to dive into the swimming pool.
``Everybody thought he was crazy,'' says Bill Kovach, then Washington bureau chief of the Times, now editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ``But we saw he was saving a baby drowning in the pool.''
``At that point,'' Safire recalls, ``they couldn't hate me anymore. After all, I ruined my watch.''
The little touch about ruining his watch, given with Safire's New York chutzpah-on-wry brand of humor, is typical of his personal and public styles. During an interview, he frequently makes fun of himself, as when he calls his book, a labor of eight years, ``a security blanket and thumb to suck on'' that took twice as long ``as it took to fight the war. Only, they weren't writing columns on the side.''
In 14 years of ``writing columns on the side,'' William Safire has succeeded in getting more folks mad at him than has any other respectable columnist in recent memory, while simultaneously getting them to respect him. ``I certainly read him with pleasure and fury,'' comments Geoffrey Stokes, media columnist for the Village Voice.
The pleasure and fury of reading Safire's twice-a-week political column, called ``Essay,'' is a morning staple for the mighty and the inquiring; and, with his ``On Language'' column, he has added an army of word lovers to his camp. Letters - from lexicographers, authors, teachers - make the column a virtual party line for the language.
Safire looks more the part of a Brooklyn merchant than either a bookish linguist or a Washington pundit. He drives to work in a 1969 Cougar convertible - ``which I do not intend to sell'' - and wears khaki-and-plaid clothing that seems to retire into anonymity. His pinched features, set in a broad, generous face, widen often in a quick smile.
His friends and colleagues say Safire earned the high regard of fellow journalists with hard work and a willingness to share information - not by saving a drowning baby, although Mr. Kovach thinks it was ``an instructive incident,'' showing the unselfish, generous side of Safire.
Unselfish? Generous? The man whose trophy case includes a stuffed piranha sent by ``a non-admirerer''? Whose rifle-shot column aimed at Nancy Reagan raised William Buckley's ire for ``spite''? Who almost single-handedly shoved Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter's budget director, out the back door of the White House?
Well, in a word, yes.
William L. Safire is regarded as a fair man by friends and many enemies. (Bert Lance now counts himself one of Safire's friends, for example.) He readily shares space in his column with those who want to offer a reasonable riposte. He is also mentioned, in conversations with media-watchers, as being just about the best in the business.
``I'm not a great admirer of columns,'' observes Al Hunt, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, ``but Safire's is one I always read. The guy is a reporter, and it shows. I don't know how it happened, but somewhere along the way he learned that it doesn't pay to be predictable. And he isn't.''
Nobody could have predicted, for instance, that the public-relations-man-turned-speech-writer-turned-columnist would become the country's leading language-watcher. But Safire seems to have assumed the mantle of high priest of words. His ``On Language'' column explores things linguistic: from the inside lingo of admen to the sporting uses of sports patois. He has won a wide audience with an artful weave of language arcana and careful but lively prose.
A sample from last week's column on Madison Avenue-ese: ``Linguistically speaking (and that's still the preferred way), there is only one rule in advertising: There are no rules.... Language without rules has little to protect it.'' And later in the column: ``One of the best writers ever had a great line: `The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' It led a whole country out of Depression. Imagine what he could have done with detergent.''
``One whole day a week, I'm Dr. Jekyll,'' he says of the single day it takes him to churn out the ``On Language'' column, with the research help of a professor. ``People put their heads in the door and see me smiling and talking to myself, and laughing.'' The common denominator, Safire says, ``is the language, my love for the language.'' A little later, he offers a reporter the daunting invitation to ``clean up my grammar wherever necessary.''
Safire's peppery use of the language twice a week on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times stirs the pot of Washington politics with astonishing regularity. As much as anybody writing in the country's newspapers, he makes things happen - a fact acknowledged by people who may not like the happenings that bubble out of Safire's stew.
Jody Powell, Carter press secretary and media point man in the Bert Lance affair, muses: ``My guess is, if Safire had been writing a column [during the Civil War],'' ``Lincoln would have had a bloody fight for renomination; he would have lost to McClellan; the South would have become a separate country; and Ronald Reagan would have been the first non-Southern president of that country.''
Safire cannot count such sweeping changes among his accomplishments. But he can lay claim to a Pulitzer Prize. And to an outsized voice in political discourse. It's easy to imagine someone in the White House making a move and saying, ``I hope that keeps Safire off our back for a while,'' muses Robert MacNeil of the Public Broadcasting System.
``I don't believe in kicking somebody when they're down,'' Safire says. ``I kick you when you're up.'' He hunts suspiciously for ``the dog that does not bark. ... I used to write presidential speeches. I know how to leave things out. Now, I read a statement and say, `Why did they put it that way? Why didn't they do it the easy way?' I'm always looking for the black holes.''
The thrill comes when ``the suspicions become justified.''
Safire himself has been the continuing object of suspicions from those who remember all too well the columns he wrote during his first six months on the job.
``I essentially made the mistake of thinking the mistakes of the Nixon era were mistakes of stupidity and not of malice,'' he admits. ``I was wrong.'' He's embarrassed for saying Watergate would go quietly and quickly into that good night.
To those who know him, it comes as no surprise that he would have stuck to his former boss's defense, down to the last gasp.
``His loyalty is such that he has difficulty coping with disillusionment,'' says his close friend Daniel Schorr, a commentator on National Public Radio. Mr. Schorr remarks on ``Bill's sense of personal loyalty to friends. ... He makes some kind of religion of that. It puts you in a special category.'' Certainly, Richard Nixon remains in a special category - even today - for Safire, who three times during an interview slipped and called him ``Lincoln.''
``Nixon had a lot to learn from the willingness of Lincoln to listen to outside opinion,'' Safire observes, adding that Nixon ``learned too much from Lincoln's willingness to crack down on dissent.''
Safire did his own learning in a remarkable collection of places: as a legman for the columnist Tex McCrary; as president of his own public relations firm (he steered Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev into a client's exhibit for the famous ``kitchen debate''); and as a presidential speech writer in the Nixon administration. In between, he worked both sides of the political street, boosting the campaigns of liberals like former New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, as well as more conservative office seekers.
His movable alliances led critics to call him ``a hired gun,'' a man with no political center. Today, in the high blush of rosy success, he is known instead as a man who will strike at malfeasance and stupidity in any political camp.
Showing a reporter around the jampacked private library of dictionaries and language books, Safire proudly displays the tools of his trade: ``I have the greatest job in the world. ``Somebody asked me, would I give this up to be secretary of state?
``I said, `Why take a step down?'''
In an article on William Safire in last Friday's Monitor, a reference was made to an ``On Language'' column which was incorrectly attributed to Mr. Safire. The column was written by Patricia Volk.