Remembering William Safire
Columnist and language maven—but did he get his last name’s Hebrew root right?
The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist William Safire, who died Sunday at 79, was a New York City-born college dropout-turned-public relations wizard who rose to prominence in 1959 when he organized the famous “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Krushchev in Moscow. Nixon later hired Safire to work on his failed 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy and to write speeches for him in 1968, once Nixon was president. Within five years, Safire had left the White House, winning a coveted spot in the New York Times’ op-ed rotation. Safire took issue with the invocation of anti-Semitism by figures he supported, including Nixon and Pat Buchanan, with whom he worked as a speechwriter. But he also didn’t shy from criticizing Israel, as when the country was on the verge in 2000 of selling arms to China, against the wishes of the United States. Tweaking the injunction not to forget Jerusalem lest your right hand wither, Safire advised, “”Reconsider, Israel; let not your democratic hand lose its cunning.” Soon after he joined the Times, he also began writing the “On Language” column for The New York Times Magazine, in which he opined on idioms, etymology, and correct usage. In person, he pointed out (at least on one occasion that we witnessed) that his last name, Safire, derived from the Hebrew letters that make up the word “sofer,” meaning “scribe.” They do. Yet even more precisely, the letters in question—samech, pei, resh—spell the word “book.” (But who’s counting?)