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“The right to do something does not mean that doing it is right” – William Safire, dead at age 79

safireWhen his column didn’t appear this weekend, we were worried. I will personally miss this master wordsmith, and columnist who I have enjoyed reading for 22 years. A fierce defender of Israel, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a Jew. His obit on JTA is impressive – but I had to post his NY Times obituary, the paper he called home.
From the NY Times Obit:

There may be many sides in a genteel debate, but in the Safire world of politics and journalism it was simpler: there was his own unambiguous wit and wisdom on one hand and, on the other, the blubber of fools he called “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

He was a college dropout and proud of it, a public relations go-getter who set up the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate” in Moscow, and a White House wordsmith in the tumultuous era of war in Vietnam, Nixon’s visit to China and the gathering storm of the Watergate scandal, which drove the president from office….
And from 1979 until earlier this month, he wrote “On Language,” a New York Times Magazine column that explored written and oral trends, plumbed the origins and meanings of words and phrases, and drew a devoted following, including a stable of correspondents he called his Lexicographic Irregulars.

The columns, many collected in books, made him an unofficial arbiter of usage and one of the most widely read writers on language. It also tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: 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.”

There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

1 Comment

  1. Larry

    9/30/2009 at 7:55 am

    Let me add three more items:

    William Safire and his wife also used to have a glorious break the fast meal each Yom Kippur, and his guest for many decades was Daniel Schorr. Here was an arch liberal and an arch libertarian conservative, the man who was hated by Nixon (enemies list) and the man who write Nixon’s speeches, breaking bagels and coming together in their Jewishness each year

    William Safire served on the board of the Dana Foundation which funded TAU in Tel Aviv

    William Safire created a club over 50 years ago, that we should all emulate. A group of ten people (in this case, men), in their 20’s, who would meet once a month in NYC. No more than two would be from the same industry. They would have guest “speakers,” and meet to discuss their nascent careers and what they did at work and in life.

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