Sunday, September 27, 2009

William Safire is Dead

In my life, I have had a variety of jobs and a variety of titles. But, no matter what kind of work I happened to be doing or what my title happened to be, I always considered myself a journalist.

Journalism was my major in college and graduate school. For many years, I worked for newspapers as a reporter and as an editor. I can't say the work ever paid very well, but it was probably the most satisfying work I have ever done.

As I have said many times in this blog, I have been writing as long as I can remember. I can't say how old I was when I started writing. I know my mother always encouraged me so perhaps she deserves most of the credit or blame, but I really don't know if any particular writers inspired me from an early age — other than the ones whose works my parents read to me, like Dr. Seuss. As I got older, various authors and journalists were added to my mental list of people I wanted to emulate.

One of those had to be William Safire. When I was a boy, he wrote speeches for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. In fact, Safire was responsible for the phrase for which Agnew may be most widely remembered — "nattering nabobs of negativism."

In 1973, he became a columnist for the New York Times, which seems like an odd pairing, given the fact that Safire regarded himself as a "libertarian conservative" and the Times is known for its progressive editorial policy. Safire retired from the Times in 2005, having penned essays for its Op–Ed page for more than 30 years, but apparently he continued to contribute to the "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine until recently.

And, today, he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79.

Safire and I did not share the same political philosophy. But we did share an appreciation of language. Consequently, I was pleased to see that Robert McFadden's obituary for Safire that was posted at the Times' website earlier today referred to Safire's "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 cliches like the plague.

And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

I never lived in New York so I didn't read his columns very often until the internet gave me access to them. But when I was growing up, I read his books. I read "Before the Fall," an insider's look at the Nixon White House, when I was in high school, and I read his political novel, "Full Disclosure," when I was in college.

It's been a few years since I last worked on a copy desk, but I read two of Safire's books on language, "No Uncertain Terms" and "The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time," both of which were published while George W. Bush was president.

I would have recommended either book to Bush, who was linguistically challenged, to say the least. We might have been spared some of the more egregious — although, admittedly, colorful — Bushisms that were imposed upon us (speaking of which, the word strategery was created by Saturday Night Live writers in a memorable satire of real Bushspeak, like misunderestimate).

Maybe not, though. Judging from how quickly Bush was distracted from his pursuit of Osama bin Laden (which lasted only slightly longer than O.J.'s pursuit of the "real killer" of his ex–wife and her friend), I'm inclined to think that Bush suffers from attention deficit disorder — and, as a result, he might not have absorbed much of the useful information contained in those books.

But I digress.

I'm sorry to see Safire go. But it does give me an opportunity to direct my readers' attention to a site Safire undoubtedly would have liked — Funny Typos, Misspellings, Bad Grammar & Engrish. (Yes, that is right — "Engrish.")

In honor of someone who cared about language — a breed that is vanishing far too rapidly — I urge you to look at it and enjoy it.

And raise your glass in Safire's memory.

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