William Safire, the Nixon speechwriter-turned-New York Times political columnist, died of pancreatic cancer at 79 in a Maryland hospice on Sept. 27. He was known for making an art of at once embracing and poking the Washington establishment.
In 2001 the wily wordsmith set his sights on one of the Jewish community’s major machers.
In a March column that year, Safire criticized the Anti-Defamation League (and the Ehud Barak government) for being part of the successful effort to win a pardon for fugitive businessman Marc Rich from President Bill Clinton. He called for Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, to resign “to demonstrate that ethical blindness has consequences.”
Foxman called Safire, and the conversation produced a memorable lead.
‘’You never made a mistake in your life?’’ an angry Foxman shouted over the phone. “What about when you worked for that anti-Semite Nixon?’’
Safire insisted that Jewish organizations needed to “take a hard look at the ulterior motives of their money sources,” urging them to “set out written policies to resist manipulation by rich sleazebags and to reprimand or fire staff members who do not get with the ethical program.”
But Safire also called Foxman a “good man” and backed away from calling for the ADL director’s head, although he said the Nixon jibe was “unfair.”
Safire was an adman visiting Moscow in 1959 when he made friends with then-Vice President Richard Nixon by arranging a capitalism vs. communism “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier.
The friendship landed Safire a speechwriter’s job in Nixon’s White House in 1969 and he is remembered for having coined the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism” to describe the administration’s critics.
From the White House he leapt in 1973 to the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, where he wrote a twice-weekly column and won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for raising questions about the propriety of the financial dealings of Bert Lance, President Jimmy Carter’s budget director. (Lance was acquitted of charges arising out of the exposes and later befriended Safire.)
Safire was especially close to Ariel Sharon. In a Jan. 3, 2005, column, Safire asked Sharon, who was buffeted by criticism from the right for setting the stage for the evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip, “And do you expect to be prime minister one year from today?”
He recorded Sharon’s reply as, “Why only one year?”
Safire turned on Israel when he felt it erred. He blasted the Jewish state for running U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard as a spy, although he later described Pollard’s life sentence as “excessive.”
In 2000, when the United States stood opposed to Israel’s arms sales to China, Safire invoked the prophetic injunction about forgetting Jerusalem in his warning to Israel not to endanger its most valuable alliance.
Safire is equally remembered as the “On Language” columnist appearing in the Times Magazine from 1979 until earlier this year.
A New York native, he was a U.S. Army veteran. He is survived by his wife, Helene; his son, Mark; his daughter, Annabel; and a granddaughter.
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