William Safire, 1929-2009

Today brings sad news: William Safire has passed away at 79, of pancreatic cancer.

Currently leading the Web site of The New York Times, the paper Safire called home for decades, is an obituary fitting of a fellow who loved language so much that he dared also to have fun with it. Robert McFadden, in an appreciation alternately pensive and puckish, gives Safire the full Safirian treatment. (Safire was “a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns, like ‘The President’s populism and the First Lady’s momulism.’” He was “tall but bent—a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on.”)

The obit discusses Safire’s politics (“‘libertarian conservative,’ which he defined as individual freedom and minimal government”), his punditry (“the word, with its implication of self-appointed expertise, might have been coined for him”), and his combination of the two in his pre-Times career as President Nixon’s speechwriter. But it focuses, finally, not on Safire’s many hats, but on the umbrella that shaded them all: his love—passionate, playful, profound—of language.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.