William Safire, N.Y. Times columnist, dies at 79

William Safire receives the Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in a White House ceremony on Dec. 15, 2006. (Shealah Craighead. / White House photo)

William Safire receives the Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in a White House ceremony on Dec. 15, 2006. (Shealah Craighead. / White House photo)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — William Safire, the Nixon speechwriter-turned-New York Times political columnist, usually sparred with Beltway power players. But 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."

He closed on a conciliatory note: “Abe dropped by my office a few minutes ago to take back that unfair telephone crack and answer questions about who sucked him into this mess, which takes some zip out of my conclusion. We wished each other a happy Passover.”

It was a brief detour into Jewish communal politics for a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist, yet very familiar.

Safire, who died of pancreatic cancer at 79 in a Maryland hospice on Sunday, just before Yom Kippur, made an art of at once embracing and poking the Washington establishment.

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. Somehow he helped cultivate the image of Nixon — who along with being a former vice president was a consummate GOP insider just elected to the most powerful position in the free world — as an outsider to Washington’s establishment.

He 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, another bastion of the establishment, to become a "hawk among doves," as one account put it.

His twice-weekly column, running until 2005, made him a gadfly of Democrats and liberals. Safire worked the column like a beat reporter 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.)

Later in his career, Safire seemed sometimes unaware how much a part of the Washington establishment he had become. One mid-1990s column was a reproach of the Clinton administration for removing his fellow columnist, Maureen Dowd, from the White House-sanctioned party circuit.

Safire reserved his deepest affections for Israel; Israeli prime ministers often used his column’s valued real estate to convey messages to the Washington leadership.

He 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?"

A year and a day later, Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke and was replaced as prime minister by Ehud Olmert.

Safiire 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: "Reconsider, Israel; let not your democratic hand lose its cunning."

Over the years, Safire made clear in his column his pain at discovering that not only Nixon but other cherished friends from that administration — Vice President Spiro Agnew and speechwriter Pat Buchanan — were not above frequent anti-Semitic outbursts or even, in Buchanan’s case, adopting the bigotry as a strategy.

After Buchanan, preparing for a presidential run in 1999 on the Reform Party ticket, accused the "Israeli lobby" of not putting America first, Safire wrote this of a man he once considered a close friend: "Was this calculated to whip up resentment at Jews’ political participation, even at the cost of stimulating anti-Semitism? Of course; he knows exactly what he’s doing. To pose as fair, he also imputes policy disloyalty to Americans with ties to Cuba, Greece, Armenia and a dozen other places, and is careful to say ‘Israeli lobby’ rather than ‘Jewish lobby.’ But you know what he means."

Safire is equally remembered as the "On Language" columnist appearing in the Times Magazine from 1979 until earlier this year. He loved to plumb the meanings of what had become common usage — especially common political usage — and seemed to take special pleasure in uncovering Jewish origins.

In 2007 he asked readers to research the origins of "Go figure." Some uncovered evidence that it was an American original, others said its derivation was Spanish, and others insisted it stemmed from the Yiddish "gay vays," or "Go know."

Safire’s assessment: "My call: Go figure is a clip of standard English ‘Go and figure it out for yourself,’ given a Yiddish overlay by go know and an expressive shrug and weary rolling of the eyes long identified with an ethnic group."

Safire, a New York native, 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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