William Safire, whose weekly meditation on language for the New York Times Magazine was avidly followed by thousands of readers and who was considered one of the finest writers of his generation, died Tuesday.
Mr. Safire’s career as a writer spanned decades, took numerous forms, and won major accolades. He began as a reporter for newspapers and television. In 1973 he became a conservative columnist for the New York Times, and in 1979 he established the “On Language” column for the paper’s magazine. In between he worked as a public relations executive and speechwriter for President Richard Nixon.
Unlike many columnists, Safire did not soar at 35,000 feet bemoaning what fools these mortals be. He did his own reporting, digging up stories and anecdotes that embarrassed politicians who deserved to be embarrassed.
As much for his gift with language, Safire was widely praised for tough, principled, often unpopular stances. He was an early outspoken critic of United States support for Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and championed the rights of Iraq’s Kurdish population. Although a conservative, he questioned and criticized many of the policies adopted by the Bush administration after 9/11, believing they falsely elevated national security over civil liberties.
Even when people disagreed with him, they could appreciate his words, TIME recalled: “At their best, which was often — he had a great hit-rate — a Safire column was just tremendously good fun, full of wordplay, some of it groan-inducing, much of it sheer enjoyment. That is depressingly rare."