Columnist left mark on world of journalism

William Safire, the longtime New York Times columnist, may be remembered longer for his “On Language” columns, exploring word origins and usage, many of which found their way into a series of widely discussed books, than for his political commentary.

As a political commentator, however, he was something of a model. For the most part he did what many of us aspire to do: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Safire called himself a libertarian conservative, but his most valuable attribute was his independence.

He took delight in taking down those on “his” side of the spectrum when he caught them in dishonesty or hypocrisy but, of course, never shrank from puncturing the bubbles and reveling in the absurdities of those on the left.

And he did it all with wit, a droll sense of humor, and a special delight in using and sometimes coining words creatively and imaginatively.

A college dropout who reveled in the fact, Safire took a rather circuitous route to one of the most prestigious posts in journalism.

He was a legman for columnist and TV-radio personality Tex McCrary, a TV correspondent, a public relations man (he finagled the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate” in Moscow in a display he was managing), and a speechwriter in the Nixon White House.

He is credited with Spiro Agnew’s most memorable alliterative putdown, characterizing the media as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

That background hardly endeared him to his colleagues at the Times when he was hired as a columnist in 1973, but he eventually won them over with his independence, his habit of doing his own reporting and his sheer joy in the possibilities of the written word.

We especially enjoyed his advice for writers: “Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand, and avoid mixing metaphors. Avoid clich