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William Safire (1930-2009)

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An obscure first time governor when Richard Nixon chose him as his running mate, Spiro Agnew was one of America’s ‘Most Admired Men’ less than a year later. His role was that as the voice of the so-called “silent majority” and boy, he delivered one scathing one criticism after another on political opponents, especially journalists and anti-war activists. His unusual, often alliterative epithets (joint products of Angrew and two White House speechwriters William Safire and Pat Buchanan) included such gems as “pusillanimous pussyfooters”, “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history” and “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

The last was directed towards the press corps. Another phrase, also directed towards the media, “nattering nabobs of negativism” was especially enduring. First used during Agnew’s address to the California Republican state convention in San Diego on September 11, 1970, the phrase was coined by William Safire, who died earlier this month at the age of 79 after a legendary career at the New York Times.

There Safire was the first regular conservative commentator for the liberal newspaper, and was beloved even by liberals for his witty “On Language” column where he playfully skewered language fumblers from across the political spectrum. Safire, a college dropout, was a longtime Republican operative; he set up the famous Nixon-Khrushchev ‘kitchen debate’ in Moscow, won the Pulitzer Prize for his columns, and never quailed from voicing strong opinions; one of his last controversial columns called Hillary Clinton a “congenital liar.”

In the end, William Safire may be remembered for “nattering nabobs of negativism”, and his “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!!

(Above, Agnew, Safire, Buchanan, and other members of the Nixon speechwriting team on a flight to a campaign stop in 1972).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 28, 2009 at 10:10 am

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