Happy Birthday

william safire, safire
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Happy Birthday, William Safire, Political Analyst and English-language Expert

December 17, 2009
by Isabel Cowles
William Safire was one of the foremost authorities on the English language; his career has also included public relations and politics. After stints as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and a conservative columnist for The New York Times, Safire defined himself as an expert on writing, grammar and etymology. Prior to his death in September 2009, he authored numerous works on politics, history and language and maintained the column “On Language” in The New York Times magazine.

William Safire's Early Days

William Safire was born the youngest of three sons in New York City on December 17, 1929, to Oliver and Ida Safir. His father died when William was only four years old.

Safire attended Bronx High School of Science in New York and then attended Syracuse University for two years. With the help of his elder brother Leonard, Safire got a job as a copyboy for Tex McCrary, a Republican columnist for the New York Herald Tribune.

Safire began working as a correspondent in Europe and the Mideast in 1952. After a brief stint in the army (when he changed his name to Safire), he spent some time producing a television and radio show, and then entered public relations. In 1959, Safire was representing a household products firm when he set up the well-known “kitchen debate” between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Safire's Notable Accomplishments

Safire became involved with a series of GOP campaigns in the 1960s; in 1968, he wrote Nixon’s victory speech, after which Safire became the senior White House speechwriter.

During Nixon’s reelection campaign, Safire wrote a series of articles for the Washington Post, earning him the attention of the national media. He signed on with The New York Times in 1973 and worked as one of the paper’s few conservative political columnists.

Safire won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his distinguished commentary and a year later, Safire began contributing to the paper’s Sunday magazine in a column entitled “On Language,” which examines English grammar, usage and etymology. The column has led to the publication of 10 books.

Other works by Safire include “Full Disclosure” (1977), “Freedom” (1987), “Sleeper Spy” (1995) and “Scandalmonger” (2000). He has also written a dictionary and an anthology.

Despite dropping out of college after just two years, Safire was presented with numerous honorary degrees and served as a trustee at Syracuse University. He also served as a member of the Pulitzer Prize board since 1995 and as the chairman of The Dana Foundation, a philanthropic organization that focuses on brain science, immunology and arts education.

The Rest of the Story

According to the Los Angeles Times, many fellow journalists regarded Safire as a fair reporter, despite his self-described position as a “libertarian conservative,” specializing in what he dubbed “opinionated reporting.” When he announced in 2004 that he would stop writing his political column for The New York Times, he gave the press some valuable advice he’d garnered from the late columnist Stewart Alsop: “Never sell out, except for a really good anecdote.”

Before the re-release of his political dictionary in April 2008, Safire met with the Washington Post to discuss politics and address some pesky grammatical and language questions. For example, he answers one reader’s vital question: “Is it correct to say ‘I'll have three Whopper Juniors’ or ‘I'll have three Whoppers Junior??’”

For more of Safire’s wit and instruction, have a glance at his Rules for Writers.

Safire died of pancreatic cancer on September 27, 2009.

Most Recent Features