William Safire dead at 79
September 27, 2009 12:11 PM   Subscribe

RIP the master maven: William Safire dead at 79 of cancer. As someone who worked with him behind the scenes to help him with research for his language columns, I'm thankful for his attempts to bring discussions of language into popular discourse, or as he called it, his work in "the language dodge."

He didn't always get his language data right, but he gave a lot of other people in the language dodge a boost by talking about their books, by mentioning their names and projects, and being unstinting with blurbs. I'll leave comments about his politics to others who knew him in that realm.
posted by Mo Nickels (61 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Full stop.
posted by mosk at 12:13 PM on September 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Thorough New York Times obituary.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:13 PM on September 27, 2009


- 30 -
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:20 PM on September 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Who will defend us against the nattering nabobs of negativism now?
posted by bukvich at 12:28 PM on September 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


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posted by l33tpolicywonk at 12:32 PM on September 27, 2009


In Event of Moon Disaster

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posted by mikedouglas at 12:40 PM on September 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


I hated his politics but loved his curiosity and passion for language. "Knowing how things work is the basis for appreciation, and is thus a source of civilized delight. " Indeed.
posted by not_the_water at 12:51 PM on September 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


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posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:55 PM on September 27, 2009


One of the last intelligent conservatives. I disagreed with him on most things (even a lot of the language stuff) but he was 10 times smarter than Douthat or Goldberg or any of the supposed bright lights of the right-wing these days.
posted by octothorpe at 12:57 PM on September 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


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posted by oinopaponton at 1:19 PM on September 27, 2009


Would he approve of our use of punctuation?


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posted by wendell at 1:20 PM on September 27, 2009


Saw him in a DC bookshop once with his son. I had just twigged when I heard the junior say-

"Look, dad, they remaindered your book!"

Sic transit and all that.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:27 PM on September 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


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posted by Urban Hermit at 1:29 PM on September 27, 2009


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God, I feel like the crushing weight of millions of incoherent, gibbering, cretinous, over- and under-punctuated youtube comments is somehow responsible for this.
posted by elizardbits at 1:55 PM on September 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


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posted by Xoebe at 2:01 PM on September 27, 2009


I hadn't read much William Safire until I read this in the Onion. Good stuff. Reminded me of my grandma discoursing at length about how I answered the phone improperly (This is he, to whom am I speaking).
posted by electroboy at 2:07 PM on September 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


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posted by RussHy at 2:23 PM on September 27, 2009


. (a moment of silence is the pause that requiescat(s))
posted by chavenet at 2:29 PM on September 27, 2009


What octothorpe said. Though I routinely flayed his language columns at LH, he was a joy to work with when I was copyediting his Political Dictionary, and I'm sorry I won't get to repeat the experience (or take him up on his offer to buy me a beer if we ever wound up in NYC at the same time). He was a good guy and I'll miss him.
posted by languagehat at 2:31 PM on September 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


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posted by tzikeh at 2:31 PM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


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posted by Obscure Reference at 2:43 PM on September 27, 2009


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posted by brundlefly at 2:48 PM on September 27, 2009


;
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 3:26 PM on September 27, 2009


"As someone who worked with him behind the scenes to help him with research for his language columns,"

You don't have sufficient distance from the subject to make this FPP. Flagged.
posted by Eideteker at 3:27 PM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


not really
posted by Eideteker at 3:28 PM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Politics aside, I'll having a person out there, of his stature, claiming that language was important, trying to get people to pay attention to it, to how it works, and what we are truly trying to say. He loved language, and I don't think there's enough of that around these days.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:39 PM on September 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


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posted by iamkimiam at 3:46 PM on September 27, 2009


His politics were pure evil, but at least his discussions of language were harmlessly ignorant attempts at supercilious pedantry.
posted by edheil at 3:50 PM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


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posted by grouse at 3:50 PM on September 27, 2009


Saddened to hear this news. I enjoyed his articles about language - but not his politics- for what seems like forever.
posted by nickyskye at 4:10 PM on September 27, 2009


Pinker and some other linguists did not think much of his writing on language, though I enjoyed reading his work and often, esp. around Christmas time got some useful tips on books worth getting.
posted by Postroad at 4:13 PM on September 27, 2009


How do you assess a man's life when that man has been a force for both good and bad? An assessment is not a eulogy; you set forth both and hope one can illuminate the other.
-William Safire
posted by found missing at 4:17 PM on September 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Another true intellectual conservative is gone, one of a rapidly dying breed. He was contemptible sometimes, but I respected the guy, as he didn't speak from ignorance and at his best was extraordinary at his particular niche of op-ed journalism. He was not a windbag or willfully obtuse, which sadly sets him far above the people who are speaking for the party today, appointed or not, because no leadership exists to mash this into something cohesive or even coherent. All it is is noise meant to distract. Seems so far away from what people like Safire were trying to do with their ideas, disagreeable or not, at least they made some sort of logical sense (well, ketchup as a vegetable was the beginning of the modern conservative using something truly outrageous masquerading as the "common sense" solution, and who really gives a shit about poor kids who need nutrition from the government, right? It's morning in America! But at least Buckley, Jr. and Saffire were still around ...). And Safire really knew how to work a phrase and write to a broad audience but never condescend to them or dumb down too much (I assume some editing was involved). He trusted that you were smart enough to get it, and for that I had great respect for the man.

Almost nothing left to anchor the movement. This severely limits the Republican Party, but it's extremely dangerous should they rise to power without a platform built on tempered ideology and intellectual grounding, not doublespeak. I mean, the Republican leadership was audacious in their own way under Nixon and Reagan, but at least they knew enough to shut up sometimes, get out of the way and let the smart people speak. Now there is no concept known as "out of your depth."
posted by krinklyfig at 4:23 PM on September 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


Pinker and some other linguists did not think much of his writing on language, though I enjoyed reading his work and often, esp. around Christmas time got some useful tips on books worth getting.

Yeah, I think he was a bit self-aggrandizing when it came to his views on language, but still was no slouch and wasn't afraid to share his enthusiasm for the subject. Like a lot of powerful editorialists, he established himself as an insider in a presidential administration, and like Chris Matthews he was a speechwriter, so there was a talent he was developing early on. "Nattering nabobs of negativism" is such a great turn of phrase any instinct to rebut it or get my hate-on for Agnew is overridden by my desire to just admire the sound and feel of it for a while. If Sarah Palin said things like that ... well, who are we kidding?

But Safire was not a typical conservative or even typical pol. Although he liked dabbling in language, he lacked academic grounding, though he was not shunned entirely by academia. He dropped out of college but later became a trustee of the same college; but if that weren't enough he worked for Nixon, whom Safire later discovered was wiretapping him, permanently souring their relationship; he voted for Clinton but spent the next eight years hounding him and in particular Hillary Clinton, whom Safire really seemed to loathe. He never was a liberal but was never entirely embraced by Republicans, either, though in the end he was always going to return to the same instincts which brought him into the fray under a character like Nixon. His cantankerous and stubborn island he staked out always seemed a bit precarious and singular, but the Republicans loved having a guy who was not only smart as a whip but as stubborn as a bulldog underpin their platform and serve as a balance to their more wacky side, dominated mostly by people brought in under the Southern Strategy and Moral Majority campaigns. Now who is that. Bill Kristol? Richard Perle? Paul Wolfowitz? Condoleezza Rice? Shit. Those guys are like board members of Satan's Hedge Fund and Mercenary Forces, LLC.
posted by krinklyfig at 4:53 PM on September 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


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posted by jquinby at 5:15 PM on September 27, 2009


electroboy: "I hadn't read much William Safire until I read this in the Onion. Good stuff. Reminded me of my grandma discoursing at length about how I answered the phone improperly (This is he, to whom am I speaking)."

Oh wow. I'm going to start ordering fast food like that.
posted by JHarris at 5:52 PM on September 27, 2009


As someone who worked with him behind the scenes...

Mo, do you think it’s true that Safire should get the credit (i.e., blame) for leading everyone now to call scandals (Nanny, Travel, Trooper, etc.) -gate, in an attempt to trivialize his boss’s Watergate crimes?

I was surprised to learn from the NYT obit that he got his job with Nixon in the first place because he took the famous photo of the 1959 kitchen debate with Khrushchev.
posted by LeLiLo at 5:55 PM on September 27, 2009


There's a good story in The Trust about how nobody at the Times really liked Safire until a party at an editor's house, where Safire jumped in the swimming pool to save another editor's kid who was drowning.

Tough crowd, I guess.
posted by Rangeboy at 6:12 PM on September 27, 2009


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posted by ManInSuit at 6:42 PM on September 27, 2009


He was truly a pretentious gasbag with hideous politics.

I taught a public speaking course once and we used his collection of great speeches. I was stunned by the number of typos throughout the book. Granted, that was his editor's fault but still, not a great way to maintain one's legacy. Maybe they've edited out all the errors by now.
posted by bardic at 6:56 PM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mo, do you think it’s true that Safire should get the credit (i.e., blame) for leading everyone now to call scandals (Nanny, Travel, Trooper, etc.) -gate, in an attempt to trivialize his boss’s Watergate crimes?

No. The -gate suffix was taken up by the press almost immediately after the Watergate scandal was revealed and was in constant and regular use by the early 1980s. Safire surely was a part of that--he loved a useful neologism--but he doesn't deserve sole credit (or blame, if that's your perspective).
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:46 PM on September 27, 2009


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posted by artsygeek at 7:47 PM on September 27, 2009


Sorry about the unclosed italics.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:48 PM on September 27, 2009


IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER is my new band name.

Regardless, upon reading that statement, you are just blown away by the command of langauge. So much in so few words.

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posted by Ironmouth at 7:59 PM on September 27, 2009


Those guys are like board members of Satan's Hedge Fund

Speaking of new band names. Yoink.
posted by kersplunk at 8:10 PM on September 27, 2009


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Another true intellectual conservative is gone, one of a rapidly dying breed. He was contemptible sometimes, but I respected the guy, as he didn't speak from ignorance and at his best was extraordinary at his particular niche of op-ed journalism. He was not a windbag or willfully obtuse, which sadly sets him far above the people who are speaking for the party today, appointed or not, because no leadership exists to mash this into something cohesive or even coherent.

QFT. Well put.

There's a good story in The Trust about how nobody at the Times really liked Safire until a party at an editor's house, where Safire jumped in the swimming pool to save another editor's kid who was drowning.

Tough crowd, I guess.


They were a pretty liberal crowd, and he was an outspoken conservative who had worked for Tricky Dick and also Spiro Agnew, the only US Vice President in history to resign because of criminal charges.

You can hear him relate the story here, on NPR's Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me! He didn't jump, by the way. His wife pushed him in. :)
posted by zarq at 9:21 PM on September 27, 2009


They were a pretty liberal crowd, and he was an outspoken conservative who had worked for Tricky Dick and also Spiro Agnew, the only US Vice President in history to resign because of criminal charges.


Oh, don't get me wrong. There's certainly no love lost between me and the embittered ghost of Tricky Dick. It's just that rescuing a drowning a child seems like an awfully high bar for friendship, even for a Nixon speechwriter.
posted by Rangeboy at 9:37 PM on September 27, 2009


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posted by Smart Dalek at 10:02 PM on September 27, 2009


,

(That's an Oxford comma. I'm not sure if he would have approved.)
posted by mmoncur at 11:16 PM on September 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Saw him in a DC bookshop once with his son. I had just twigged when I heard the junior say-

"Look, dad, they remaindered your book!"

Sic transit and all that.


The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book --
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seeminly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.


The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.


Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyart with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretense,
Is there with Pertwee's Promenades and Pierrots--
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
"My boobs will give everyone hours of fun".


Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error--
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.


Clive James
posted by atrazine at 11:28 PM on September 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


> I was stunned by the number of typos throughout the book. Granted, that was his editor's fault

And that's what you choose to bash him with? A badly edited book? Classy.
posted by languagehat at 6:06 AM on September 28, 2009


Maybe this askme will be helpful.
posted by electroboy at 7:00 AM on September 28, 2009


A great loss: our language was better served by his hands, and--Conservative or not--there are too few true intellectuals left in the media.
posted by njbradburn at 7:03 AM on September 28, 2009


Much as I liked Safire and appreciated his (often ill-informed) love of language, he was by no stretch of the imagination an intellectual, "true" or not. He was a PR guy who got involved with politics and wound up writing newspaper columns. Let's not lower the bar so much that anyone who isn't actually illiterate is an intellectual.
posted by languagehat at 7:18 AM on September 28, 2009


Yes, he supported Nixon but not in that creepy Ben Stein-ish sort of way so he gets some points for that. But what I'll always like about him is his unabashed love of language. I can't think of anyone else willing or able to carry that on but I hope that's just me.
posted by tommasz at 7:23 AM on September 28, 2009


-30-
posted by ahimsakid at 8:24 AM on September 28, 2009


Let's not lower the bar so much that anyone who isn't actually illiterate is an intellectual.
LOL! Well said! But to your point then, allow me to restate: "Now Charles Krauthammer is the only intelligent man left in the media." ;>
posted by njbradburn at 8:24 AM on September 28, 2009


...
posted by HumanComplex at 8:25 AM on September 28, 2009


He was a language pundit. Meaning that he entertained but didn't necessarily deal with fact. He loved factoids and couldn't tell the difference between a coincidence and a real historical relationship (between expressions, for example). He didn't seem to do a lot of homework and relied mostly on experts and their often self-serving opinions. No one who studies language structure and change took him seriously, except Pinker, to criticize him. The columns were language fluff. He was a fluffer.
posted by cogneuro at 10:01 AM on September 28, 2009


No one who studies language structure and change took him seriously, except Pinker, to criticize him.

Of course not. They weren't his audience.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:57 AM on September 28, 2009


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posted by kidbritish at 1:56 PM on September 28, 2009


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