William Safire, 79, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times and previous Nixon speechwriter, died of pancreatic cancer Sunday in Rockville, Md.
WASHINGTON — William Safire, 79, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, whose penchant for the barbed and memorable phrase first manifested itself in speeches he wrote for the Nixon White House, died of pancreatic cancer Sunday in Rockville, Md.
For more than three decades, Mr. Safire wrote twice weekly as the resident conservative columnist on The Times op-ed page. He also wrote the popular “On Language” column in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, exploring grammar, usage and the origin of words.
He arrived at The Times in 1973, after his stint as a senior White House speechwriter for President Nixon. His catchy turns of phrase often outlived the context in which they were delivered. Perhaps the most memorable was the acidic and alliterative put-down he crafted for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to describe those in the press who opposed the Vietnam War. They were, Agnew said, “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Although his early columns defended Nixon against charges arising from Watergate, Mr. Safire became less ardent after he learned about the White House taping system. He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1978 for his columns on the financial affairs of Carter White House budget director Bert Lance, who was accused of irregular banking practices in Georgia.
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In the Reagan administration, he reported that Charles Wick, head of the U.S. Information Agency, was secretly taping phone conversations.
“I’m willing to zap conservatives when they do things that are not libertarian,” Mr. Safire told The Post in 2004.
Born William L. Safir (the “e” was added later) in New York City on Dec. 17, 1929, he enrolled at Syracuse University but dropped out and went to work for New York Herald Tribune columnist Tex McCrary.
After working as a roving correspondent in Europe and the Middle East for WNBC radio and WNBT-TV, he was inducted into the Army, where he did public-relations work. Returning to NBC in 1954, he produced radio and TV shows featuring Tex McCrary and then headed McCrary’s public-relations firm. His clients included the construction company that built the “typical American house” for the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959.
Mr. Safire was able to corral then-Vice President Nixon, who opened the exhibition, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the kitchen showroom, where Nixon provoked the famous “kitchen debate” on the relative merits of capitalism and Communism.
Mr. Safire snapped a photo of the two men that would be used to buttress Nixon’s reputation as a tough “cold warrior” in his 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee that year.
Before the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon assigned Mr. Safire to help Patrick Buchanan write Nixon’s syndicated newspaper column.
After Nixon’s election Nov. 5, 1968, he wrote the President-elect’s victory speech, and became a special assistant to the president. In a 1969 article, The New York Times described Mr. Safire as “the word factory’s resident pro for zingers and snappers.”
He continued writing his twice-weekly political column until 2005, his “On Language” until earlier this month. He also wrote 15 books, including four novels.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, the former Helene Belmar Julius, two children and a grandchild.