Authors: William Safire

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American journalist, novelist, and grammarian

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The Relations Explosion, 1963

Plunging into Politics, 1964 (with Marshall Loeb)

The New Language of Politics, 1968 (revised and enlarged as Safire’s New Political Dictionary: The Definitive Guide to the New Language of Politics, 1993)

Before the Fall, 1975 (also known as Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House, 1988)

Safire’s Washington, 1980

On Language, 1980

What’s the Good Word? 1982

I Stand Corrected: More on Language, 1984

Take My Word for It: More on Language, 1986

You Could Look It Up: More on Language, 1988

Language Maven Strikes Again, 1990

Coming to Terms, 1990

The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics, 1992

Quoth the Maven, 1993

In Love with Norma Loquendi, 1994

Watching My Language, 1996

Spread the Word, 1999

Long Fiction:

Full Disclosure, 1977

Freedom, 1987

Sleeper Spy, 1995

Scandalmonger, 2000

Edited Texts:

Good Advice, 1982 (with Leonard Safir)

Words of Wisdom, 1989 (with Safir)

Leadership, 1990 (with Safir)

Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, 1992

Good Advice on Writing: Writers Past and Present on How to Write Well, 1992 (with Safir)

Biography

William Safire (SA-fir) was the youngest of three sons born to Oliver and Ida (Panish) Safir. Years later, while in the Army, he would legally change the spelling of his surname to match its pronunciation. His father, a successful thread manufacturer, died when his boy William was only four years old, leaving his wife and three sons financially strained. Times were difficult for the family; his brother and occasional collaborator, Leonard, has noted that Safire learned much of his determination and grit during this period of his life, as well as the value of family and friendship in surviving hard times.{$I[A]Safire, William}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Safire, William}{$I[tim]1929;Safire, William}

William Safire

(The New York Times)

In 1947, Safire earned a scholarship to Syracuse University. Two years later, however, he dropped out of college to work and to serve in the military, never returning to earn a degree. He was a correspondent while in the military and a profiles columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, but it was his work as a copyboy with John Reagan “Tex” McCrary, columnist at the newspaper and host of a radio show, that shaped much of his future life. As public figures, McCrary and his wife, actress and model Jinx Falkenburg, introduced Safire to many politicians and prominent figures of the day. McCrary was active in Republican politics; at the age of only twenty-two, as McCrary’s assistant, Safire organized a major rally that persuaded General Dwight Eisenhower to run for U.S. president in 1952. Although McCrary cultivated other young talents (including newscaster Barbara Walters), he treated Safire like a son, and the two went into public relations together in the 1950’s. From 1955 to 1960, Safire was vice president of Tex McCrary, Incorporated.

In 1959, Safire was responsible for the famous “Kitchen Debate” between Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. vice president Richard Nixon. Nixon was in Moscow to promote a U.S. trade and cultural fair; Safire’s role there was to promote the manufacturers of American home products. In front of a replica of a typical American kitchen, the two world figures confronted each other in a newsmaking impromptu debate arranged by Safire. From 1955 to 1960, he was president of Safire Public Relations in New York City. In 1962 he married British jewelry maker Helene Belmar Julius; they had a son, Mark Lindsey, and a daughter, Annabel Victoria, and settled in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Safire and his wife remained married until his death at age 79 on September 27, 2009.

In 1965, Safire volunteered to work as an unpaid writer for Richard Nixon; he produced speeches and worked with Patrick Buchanan on Nixon’s syndicated newspaper column. When Nixon won the presidency in 1968, Safire sold his public relations company and joined Nixon’s White House staff as a senior writer of speeches and position papers. He represented the moderate wing of the Republican Party. He assisted the president and Vice President Spiro Agnew on position papers on the economy and the war in Vietnam. It was Safire who coined Agnew’s famous description of members of the news media as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Nixon was reelected in 1972. Safire left the White House the following year, when he was offered a position on the editorial staff of The New York Times; his departure occurred before the Watergate scandal. His biweekly syndicated columns about American politics and his weekly columns on language in The New York Times Sunday Magazine appeared in hundreds of newspapers and made him widely known and highly influential. In 1978, his exposure of banking irregularities by President Jimmy Carter’s budget director, Bert Lance, led to the resignation of Lance and won for Safire a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. Safire wrote from the political perspective of a conservative libertarian, and his writing is characterized by a relaxed style, abundant wordplay, and blunt, direct expression.

During his career, Safire published nonfiction books as well as novels that drew on his insider knowledge of public relations and politics as well as his passion for history and for language. The New Language of Politics combines all these elements and is considered by many to be the definitive study of political terms and words that have stirred and enraged American voters and influenced elections. Safire also wrote numerous books on language, communications, effective writing, and word origins. These books on contemporary American English usage attempt to entertain as well as educate and garnered Safire many fans among general readers as well as copyeditors.

Professional linguists and lexicographers, however, take issue on occasion with his lack of formal expertise. He called himself a “pop grammarian,” and his book I Stand Corrected addresses mistakes he made in his “On Language” column and in his books. Safire authored the widely circulated “Fumblerules of Grammar,” a list of rules that break the very precepts they put forward; for example, “Remember to never split an infinitive” and “Don’t use no double negatives.” In addition to producing a controversial favorable memoir of the Nixon White House, an anthology of speeches throughout history, collections of columns, and a political interpretation of the biblical Book of Job, Safire wrote novels.

In Full Disclosure, he explores the issue of the Twenty-fifth Amendment (regarding procedure when a U.S. president becomes disabled) through his main character, a president who is blinded and whose enemies attempt to force him out of office because of it. Critics found the book’s strength to be its insider’s view of political intrigue but questioned its literary value. His second novel, Freedom, is a historical novel set during the first two years of the American Civil War. A number of critics praised the book highly for articulating the cultural ideals of the United States, but others found the book flawed, and many readers were taken aback by his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, president during the War Between the States. Safire explained in interviews at the time of the book’s publication that he had attempted to penetrate the mythology surrounding Lincoln and approached him as a political figure with his own failings and shortcomings.

Sleeper Spy, an intellectual thriller, is about a Russian spy planted in the United States years before his services are needed and suddenly called to duty at the breakup of the Soviet Union. Filled with mystery, action, and complexities of plot that keep both characters and readers uncertain of where the truth lies, it elicited many positive reviews from critics. Friction between public figures, especially high-ranking politicians, and the news media may seem a modern phenomenon, but Safire’s novel Scandalmonger shows that it is as old as the United States. Based on his research into letters, journals, and official documents, Safire created a historically accurate story of political scandals among the Founding Fathers, specifically secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and the newsman who publicly exposed the dark secrets of their private lives. Published in the wake of scandal in President Bill Clinton’s White House, Safire’s book was a critical success.

William Safire was a political pundit whose career brought him into working contact with the rich, famous, and powerful since the earliest days of his professional life in the 1950’s and provided him with experiences and insights for his columns and books. Unpredictable and contrarian, he shunned an objective detachment from the subjects on which he wrote, instead priding himself on subjective reporting while throwing in humor and wordplay along the way.

BibliographyBuckley, William F. “Right from the Start: William Safire.” New York 25 (December 21-28, 1992): 107-108. Buckley critiques Safire’s conservative role in the media.Pinker, Steven. “Grammar Puss.” The New Republic 210, no. 5 (January 31, 1994): 19. Scholar and linguist Pinker takes issue with Safire’s prescriptive rules of grammar and argues that there are deeper forces at work in linguistic change than Safire acknowledges.“A Pundit for the Times: William Safire.” U.S. News & World Report 104, no. 5 (February 8, 1988): 72. Part of a special report on the media establishment, this article offers a profile of Safire and of his role in the Bert Lance resignation.Quinn, Jim. “Lingo: William Safire’s ‘On Language’ Column.” The Nation 242 (January 18, 1986). The author accuses Safire and other grammar prescriptivists of devaluing certain language because it emerges from marginalized groups that threaten the status quo of establishment power groups.Safire, William. “Strong Words.” Interview by Victor Gold. Washingtonian 26 (August, 1991). A generally favorable interview with Safire, it includes his views on contemporary political figures, including presidents and their staffs.Shapiro, Walter. “Prolific Purveyor of Punditry.” Time 135, no. 7 (February 12, 1990): 62. This is an admiring personality sketch that hits the highlights of Safire’s life and career.Williams, Marjorie C. “Safire and Brimstone.” Vanity Fair 55 (November, 1992). This author accuses Safire of using his public relations skills to finesse his way into positions of power and influence. It delves into his careers at The New York Times and in the Nixon administration.
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