He was a long-time syndicated political columnist for The New York Times and wrote the "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine about popular etymology, new or unusual usages, and other language-related topics.
Safire receiving the 2006 Presidential Medal of Freedom
|Born||William Lewis Safir|
December 17, 1929
New York City, New York, United States
|Died||September 27, 2009 (aged 79)|
Rockville, Maryland, United States
|Occupation||Author, columnist, lexicographer, journalist, political speechwriter|
|Spouse||Helene Belmar Julius|
Safire was born William Lewis Safir in New York City, New York the son of Ida (née Panish) and Oliver Craus Safir. His family was Jewish, and originated in Romania on his father's side. Safire later added the "e" to his surname for pronunciation reasons, though some of his relatives continue to use the original spelling.
Safire graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, a specialized public high school in New York City. He attended Syracuse University but dropped out after two years. He delivered the commencement address at Syracuse in 1978 and 1990, and became a trustee of the university.
He was a public relations executive from 1955 to 1960. Previously, he had been a radio and television producer and an Army correspondent. He worked as a publicist for a homebuilder who exhibited a model home at an American trade fair at Sokolniki Park in Moscow in 1959—the one in which Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev had their famous Kitchen Debate. A widely circulated black-and-white photograph of the event was taken by Safire. Safire joined Nixon's campaign for the 1960 Presidential race, and again in 1968. After Nixon's 1968 victory, Safire served as a speechwriter for him and for Spiro Agnew; he is well known for having created Agnew's famous term, "nattering nabobs of negativism."
Safire prepared a speech called In Event of Moon Disaster for President Nixon to read on television if the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the Moon. According to the plans, Mission Control would "close down communications" with the LEM and a clergyman would have commended their souls to "the deepest of the deep" in a public ritual likened to burial at sea. Presidential telephone calls to the astronauts' wives were also planned. The speech originated in a memo from Safire to Nixon's chief of staff H. R. Haldeman in which Safire suggested a protocol the administration might follow in reaction to such a disaster. The last line of the prepared text contained an allusion to Rupert Brooke's First World War poem "The Soldier". In a 2013 piece for Foreign Policy magazine, Joshua Keating included the speech as one of six entries in a list of "The Greatest Doomsday Speeches Never Made."
He joined The New York Times as a political columnist in 1973. Soon after joining the Times, Safire learned that he had been the target of "national security" wiretaps authorized by Nixon, and, after noting that he had worked only on domestic matters, wrote with what he characterized as "restrained fury" that he had not worked for Nixon through a difficult decade "to have him—or some lizard-lidded paranoid acting without his approval—eavesdropping on my conversations."
In 1978, Safire won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary on Bert Lance's alleged budgetary irregularities; in 1981, Lance was acquitted by a jury on all nine charges. Safire's column on October 27, 1980, entitled "The Ayatollah Votes", was quoted in a campaign ad for Ronald Reagan in that year's presidential election.
Upon announcing the retirement of Safire's political column in 2005, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, said:
The New York Times without Bill Safire is all but unimaginable, Bill's provocative and insightful commentary has held our readers captive since he first graced our Op-Ed Page in 1973. Reaching for his column became a critical and enjoyable part of the day for our readers across the country and around the world. Whether you agreed with him or not was never the point, his writing is delightful, informed and engaging.
Safire served as a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board from 1995 to 2004. After ending his op-ed column, he became the full-time chief executive of the Dana Foundation, where he was chairman from 2000. In 2006, Safire was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
In addition to his political columns, Safire wrote a column, "On Language", in the weekly The New York Times Magazine from 1979 until the month of his death. Many of the columns were collected in books. According to the linguist Geoffrey Pullum, over the years Safire became less of a "grammar-nitpicker," and Benjamin Zimmer cited Safire's willingness to learn from descriptive linguists. Another book on language was The New Language of Politics (1968), which developed into what Zimmer called Safire's "magnum opus," Safire's Political Dictionary.
Safire described himself as a "libertarian conservative." A Washington Post story on the ending of his op-ed column quotes him on the subject:
After voting for Bill Clinton in 1992, Safire became one of the leading critics of Clinton's administration. Hillary Clinton in particular was often the target of his ire. He caused controversy in a January 8, 1996, essay when, after reviewing her record, he concluded she was a "congenital liar". She did not respond to the specific instances cited, but said that she didn't feel offended for herself, but for her mother's sake. According to the president's press secretary at the time, Mike McCurry, "the President, if he were not the President, would have delivered a more forceful response to that on the bridge of Mr. Safire's nose".
Safire was one of several voices who called for war with Iraq, and predicted a "quick war" and wrote: "Iraqis, cheering their liberators, will lead the Arab world toward democracy." He consistently brought up the point in his Times columns that an Iraqi intelligence agent met with Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 attackers, in Prague, which he called an "undisputed fact", a theory which was disputed by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Safire insisted that the theory was true and used it to make a case for war against Iraq. He also incorrectly predicted that "freed scientists" would lead coalition forces to "caches [of weapons of mass destruction] no inspectors could find".
Safire was staunchly pro-Israel. He received the Guardian of Zion Award of Bar-Ilan University in 2005. President George W. Bush appointed him to serve on the Honorary Delegation to accompany him to Jerusalem for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel in May 2008.
Safire died from pancreatic cancer at a hospice in Rockville, Maryland, on September 27, 2009, aged 79. He was survived by his wife, Helene Belmar (Julius); their children, Mark and Annabel; and granddaughter, Lily.
The following is a partial list of his writings:
The alphabet agencies (also New Deal agencies) were the U.S. federal government agencies created as part of the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The earliest agencies were created to combat the Great Depression in the United States and were established during Roosevelt's first 100 days in office in 1933. William Safire notes that the phrase "gave color to the charge of excessive bureaucracy." Democrat Al Smith, who turned against Roosevelt, said his government was “submerged in a bowl of alphabet soup."In total, at least 100 offices were created during Roosevelt's terms of office as part of the New Deal, and "even the Comptroller-General of the United States, who audits the government's accounts, declared he had never heard of some of them." While previously all monetary appropriations had been separately passed by Act of Congress, as part of their power of the purse; the National Industrial Recovery Act allowed Roosevelt to allocate $3.3 billion without Congress (as much as had been previously spent by government in ten years time), through executive orders and other means. These powers were used to create many of the alphabet agencies. Other laws were passed allowing the new bureaus to pass their own directives within a wide sphere of authority. Even though the National Industrial Recovery Act was found to be Unconstitutional, many of the agencies created under it remained.
Some alphabet agencies were established by Congress, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority. Others were established through Roosevelt executive orders, such as the Works Progress Administration and the Office of Censorship, or were part of larger programs such as the many that belonged to the Works Progress Administration. The agencies were sometimes referred to as alphabet soup. Some of the agencies still exist today, while others have merged with other departments and agencies or were abolished, or found unconstitutional.Bring Us Together
"Bring Us Together" was a political slogan popularized after the election of Republican candidate Richard Nixon as United States President in 1968. The text was derived from a sign which 13-year-old Vicki Lynne Cole stated that she carried at Nixon's rally in her home town of Deshler, Ohio during the campaign.
Richard Moore, a friend of Nixon, told the candidate's speechwriters he had seen a child carrying a sign reading "Bring Us Together" at the Deshler rally. The speechwriters, including William Safire, began inserting the phrase into the candidate's speeches. Nixon mentioned the Deshler rally and the sign in his victory speech on November 6, 1968, adopting the phrase as representing his administration's initial goal—to reunify the bitterly divided country. Cole came forward as the person who carried the sign, and was the subject of intense media attention.
Nixon invited Cole and her family to the inauguration, and she appeared on a float in the inaugural parade. The phrase "Bring Us Together" was used ironically by Democrats when Nixon proposed policies they disagreed with or refused to support. Cole declined to comment on Nixon's 1974 resignation, but subsequently expressed her sympathy for him. In newspaper columns written in his final years before his 2009 death, Safire expressed doubts that Cole's sign ever existed.Chicken Kiev speech
The Chicken Kiev speech is the nickname for a speech given by the United States president George H. W. Bush in Kiev, Ukraine, on August 1, 1991, 3 weeks before the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine and 4 months before the December independence referendum in which 92.26% Ukrainians voted to withdraw from the Soviet Union, in which Bush cautioned against "suicidal nationalism". 145 days after the speech, the Soviet Union collapsed, partially pushed by Ukraine. The speech was written by Condoleezza Rice—later Secretary of State under President George W. Bush—when she was in charge of Soviet and Eastern European affairs for the first President Bush. It outraged Ukrainian nationalists and American conservatives, with the conservative New York Times columnist William Safire calling it the "Chicken Kiev speech" in protest at what he saw as its "colossal misjudgment" for the very weak tone and miscalculation.Christianism
Christianism means particular doctrines of Christianity made into a political system for the pursuit of worldly power, to be distinguished from Christianity in various forms of religious practices of denominations, such as Catholicism, Protestantism, etc. The more common term for describing the religion, and its followers, is Christianity. The word is analogous with Islamism, in that both terms can mean either the system of beliefs overall, or, more recently, a specific movement within those religions focused on specific political goals. Christianist and neo-Christianism are related terms.
The term is often used pejoratively, to describe the Christian right in the United States.Writing in 2005, William Safire, language columnist for The New York Times, attributed the term (in this novel usage) to blogger Andrew Sullivan, who wrote on June 1, 2003, page 19, "I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam." Sullivan later expanded on his usage of the term in a Time magazine column.
The bloggers Tristero and David Neiwert used the term shortly after.Uses of the term can be found dating back to the seventeenth century, but these are unrelated to the meaning in its modern usage.Cover your ass
Cover your ass (British: arse), abbreviated CYA, is activity done by an individual to protect himself or herself from possible subsequent criticism, legal penalties, or other repercussions, usually in a work-related or bureaucratic context. In one sense, it may be rightful steps to protect oneself properly while in a difficult situation, such as what steps to take to protect oneself after being fired. But, in a different sense, according to The New York Times' language expert William Safire, it describes "the bureaucratic technique of averting future accusations of policy error or wrongdoing by deflecting responsibility in advance". It often involves diffusing responsibility for one's actions as a form of insurance against possible future negative repercussions. It can denote a type of institutional risk-averse mentality which works against accountability and responsibility, often characterized by excessive paperwork and documentation, which can be harmful to the institution's overall effectiveness. The activity, sometimes seen as instinctive, is generally unnecessary towards accomplishing the goals of the organization, but helpful to protect a particular individual's career within it, and it can be seen as a type of institutional corruption working against individual initiative.Factoid
A factoid is either a false statement presented as a fact or a true, but brief or trivial item of news or information.
The term was coined in 1973 by American writer Norman Mailer to mean a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though it is not actually true, or an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print. Since its creation in 1973, the term has evolved, now often being used to describe a brief or trivial item of news or information.Freedom (Safire novel)
Freedom is a historical novel by American essayist William Safire, set in the early years of the American Civil War. It concludes with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
The novel shows how its main characters grapple with the dilemmas of political morality raised by secession and war. A particular focus is the challenge of reconciling individual rights and liberties with preserving the nation when its existence is threatened (a topic Safire would return to in his non-fiction writing, following the September 11 attacks). The novel shows how this process of wrestling with moral dilemmas in the political setting led, step by step, to the Emancipation Proclamation.
As compared with other historical novels, Freedom is unusual in the volume of detail provided about its sources by the author. In a lengthy appendix, or "underbook" as Safire refers to it, he goes through the novel chapter by chapter, and in some cases line by line, distinguishing fact from fiction, citing his source materials, and weighing the arguments on both sides of various historical controversies.Fumblerules
A fumblerule is a rule of language or linguistic style, humorously written in such a way that it breaks this rule. Fumblerules are a form of self-reference.
The science editor George L. Trigg published a list of such rules in 1979. The term fumblerules was coined in a list of such rules compiled by William Safire on Sunday, 4 November 1979, in his column "On Language" in the New York Times. Safire later authored a book titled Fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage, which was reprinted in 2005 as How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar.James C. Humes
James C. Humes is an author and former presidential speechwriter. Humes, along with William Safire and Pat Buchanan, is credited for authoring the text on the Apollo 11 lunar plaque. Humes has written many books sharing his extensive knowledge of the modern history and political landscape.Lunar plaque
The Lunar plaques are stainless steel commemorative plaques measuring 9 by 7 5⁄8 inches (22.9 by 19.4 cm) attached to the ladders on the descent stages of the United States Apollo Lunar Modules flown on lunar landing missions Apollo 11 through Apollo 17, to be left permanently on the lunar surface. The plaques were originally suggested and designed by NASA's head of technical services Jack Kinzler, who oversaw their production.All of the plaques bear facsimiles of the participating astronauts' signatures. For this reason, an extra plaque had to be made for Apollo 13 due to the late replacement of one crew member. The first (Apollo 11) and last (Apollo 17) plaques bear a facsimile of the signature of Richard Nixon, President of the United States during the landings, along with references to the start and completion of "man's first explorations of the Moon" and expressions of peace "for all mankind".
All, except the Apollo 12 plaque (which is also textured differently), bear pictures of the two hemispheres of Earth. Apollo 17's plaque bears a depiction of the lunar globe in addition to the Earth. The plaques used on missions 13 through 16 bear the call-sign of each mission's Lunar Module. All the plaques were left on the Moon, except the two for the aborted Apollo 13 mission which did not land on the Moon.Madison Avenue
Madison Avenue is a north-south avenue in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, United States, that carries northbound one-way traffic. It runs from Madison Square (at 23rd Street) to meet the southbound Harlem River Drive at 142nd Street. In doing so, it passes through Midtown, the Upper East Side (including Carnegie Hill), East Harlem, and Harlem. It is named after and arises from Madison Square, which is itself named after James Madison, the fourth President of the United States.
Madison Avenue was not part of the original Manhattan street grid established in the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, and was carved between Park Avenue (formerly Fourth) and Fifth Avenue in 1836, due to the effort of lawyer and real estate developer Samuel B. Ruggles who had previously purchased and developed New York's Gramercy Park in 1831, who was in part responsible for the development of Union Square, and who also named Lexington Avenue.
Since the 1920s, the street's name has been metonymous with the American advertising industry. Therefore, the term "Madison Avenue" refers specifically to the agencies and methodology of advertising. "Madison Avenue techniques" refers, according to William Safire, to the "gimmicky, slick use of the communications media to play on emotions."Mark Shields
Mark Stephen Shields (born May 25, 1937) is an American political columnist and commentator.
Since 1988, Shields has provided weekly political analysis and commentary for the PBS NewsHour. His current on-screen counterpart is David Brooks of The New York Times. Previous counterparts were the late William Safire, Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal, and David Gergen. Shields was also a regular panelist on Inside Washington, a weekly public affairs show that was seen on both PBS and ABC until it ceased production in December 2013. For 17 years, Shields was moderator and panelist on CNN's Capital Gang.Mistakes were made
"Mistakes were made" is an expression that is commonly used as a rhetorical device, whereby a speaker acknowledges that a situation was handled poorly or inappropriately but seeks to evade any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by not specifying the person who made the mistakes. The acknowledgement of "mistakes" is framed in an abstract sense, with no direct reference to who made the mistakes. A less evasive construction might be along the lines of "I made mistakes" or "John Doe made mistakes." The speaker neither accepts personal responsibility nor accuses anyone else. The word "mistakes" also does not imply intent.
The New York Times has called the phrase a "classic Washington linguistic construct." Political scientist William Schneider suggested that this usage be referred to as the "past exonerative" tense, and commentator William Safire has defined the phrase as "[a] passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it". A commentator at NPR declared this expression to be "the king of non-apologies". While perhaps most famous in politics, the phrase has also been used in business, sports, and entertainment.
Despite some mockery of the phrase, its use is still widespread and, in the opinion of one commentator, "the type of evasive and corrupted language for which Ron Ziegler was repeatedly pilloried for using as Nixon's press secretary is not only accepted, but heartily and shamelessly embraced as a norm of political and social conduct."On Language
On Language was a regular column in the weekly New York Times Magazine on the English language discussing popular etymology, new or unusual usages, and other language-related topics. The inaugural column was published on February 18, 1979 and it was a regular popular feature. Many of the columns were collected in books.
Columnist and journalist William Safire was one of the most frequent contributors from the inception of the column until Safire's death in 2009. He wrote the inaugural On Language column in 1979. starting it with the greeting: "How do you do. This is a new column about language." In more than 30 years, he contributed more than 1300 installments to the column.
Safire was succeeded by Ben Zimmer, who wrote the column until its final edition on
February 25, 2011.About the cancellation of the column, the incoming editor of New York Times Magazine Hugo Lindgren explained this and other changes to the magazine: "It is mine now. I'm in charge. We're going to be doing some significant redesign work, and have a newish magazine by the end of January. The big thing is, I want to create a kind of new identity for the front-of-the-book section. That doesn't mean that everything's being tossed out. We're looking at everything and evaluating what sort of fits."Peace feeler
A peace feeler is, in diplomacy, a means of determining whether a warring party is prepared to end hostilities. William Safire defines it as "a diplomatic probe, real or imagined, to end hostilities."Photo op
A photo op (sometimes written as photo opp), short for photograph opportunity (photo opportunity), is an arranged opportunity to take a photograph of a politician, a celebrity, or a notable event.The term was coined by the administration of US President Richard Nixon. William Safire credited its coinage to Bruce Whelihan, an aide to Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler. Ziegler would say Get 'em in for a picture, and Whelihan would dutifully announce to the White House press room, There will be a photo opportunity in the Oval Office.The term has acquired a negative connotation, referring to a carefully planned pseudo-event, often masqueraded as news. It is associated with politicians who perform tasks such as planting trees, picking up litter, and visiting senior citizens, often during election cycles, with the intent of photographers catching the events, generating positive publicity.
Among nearly ritual photo ops are those when participants of a summit get out of their cars, shake hands or kiss, or sign a document. Formal, planned photography sessions in the White House date back to the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt's press secretary advised photographers to avoid taking photos of the President in a wheelchair.Redneck
Redneck is a derogatory term chiefly but not exclusively applied to white Americans perceived to be crass and unsophisticated, closely associated with rural whites of the Southern United States. Its usage is similar in meaning to cracker (especially regarding Texas, Georgia, and Florida), hillbilly (especially regarding Appalachia and the Ozarks), and white trash (but without the last term's suggestions of immorality).By the 1970s, the term had become offensive slang, its meaning expanded to include racism, loutishness, and opposition to modern ways.Patrick Huber, in his monograph A Short History of Redneck: The Fashioning of a Southern White Masculine Identity, emphasized the theme of masculinity in the 20th-century expansion of the term, noting, "The redneck has been stereotyped in the media and popular culture as a poor, dirty, uneducated, and racist Southern white man."Spider hole
A spider hole is military parlance for a type of camouflaged one-man foxhole, used for observation. A spider hole is typically a shoulder-deep, protective, round hole, often covered by a camouflaged lid, in which a soldier can stand and fire a weapon. A spider hole differs from a typical foxhole in that a foxhole is usually deeper and designed to emphasize cover rather than concealment.
The term is usually understood to be an allusion to the camouflaged hole constructed by the trapdoor spider. According to United States Marine Corps historian Major Chuck Melson, the term originated in the American Civil War, when it meant a hastily dug foxhole. Spider holes were used during World War II by Japanese forces on many Pacific battlefields, including Leyte in the Philippines and Iwo Jima. They called them "octopus pots" (たこつぼ, takotsubo) for a fancied resemblance to the pots used to catch octopuses in Japan.
Spider holes were also used by Vietnamese Communist fighters during the Vietnam War.
The American columnist William Safire claimed in the December 15, 2003, issue of the New York Times that the term originated in the Vietnam War. According to Safire, one of the characteristics of these holes was that they held a "clay pot large enough to hold a crouching man." If the pot broke, the soldier was exposed to attack from snakes or spiders, hence the name "spider hole".
On December 13, 2003, during the Iraq War, American forces in Operation Red Dawn captured Iraqi president Saddam Hussein hiding in what was characterized as a "spider hole" outside an Ad-Dawr farmhouse (near his hometown of Tikrit).Wilson desk
The Wilson desk is a large mahogany desk used by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the Oval Office as their Oval Office desk. One of only six desks used by a President in the Oval office, it was purchased between 1897 and 1899 by Garret Augustus Hobart, the 24th Vice President of the United States, for the Vice President's Room in the United States Capitol.
Nixon chose this desk for the Oval Office because of his mistaken belief that former President Woodrow Wilson had used it there. In 1971 Nixon had five recording devices secretly installed in the Wilson desk by the United States Secret Service. These recordings constitute some of the Watergate tapes.
Nixon referred to the desk in 1969 in his "Silent majority" speech, stating "Fifty years ago, in this room and at this very desk, President Woodrow Wilson spoke words which caught the imagination of a war-weary world." In actuality, the desk was never used by Woodrow Wilson in the Oval office. Nixon was informed by one of his speech writers, William Safire, that the desk was actually used by Vice President of the United States Henry Wilson during President Ulysses S. Grant's administration. This also appears to be untrue, since the desk wasn't ordered until 1897 or later, more than 22 years after Henry Wilson's death. The "Wilson Desk" appears to be a misnomer, as it has never been continuously used by anyone with the last name of "Wilson."
Pulitzer Prize for Commentary (1976–2000)