William Safire: wide-ranging columnist with a gift for words

The conservative writer won a Pulitzer Prize and a wide following for his New York Times columns on politics and language.

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.

During his prolific career, he wrote not only columns, but also novels as well as a political dictionary. His work has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Like his career, Safire’s columns covered wide ground and allowed him to peer into various dimensions of American life. In its appreciation of Safire, the Wall Street Journal noted:

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.

“Safire saw himself as a libertarian conservative, and in that order, and was always willing to take shots at those one his side when they moved away from his principles,” wrote Politico.

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."

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