Bill Safire: Why Words Matter

Bill Safire, Nixon speechwriter, NYT columnist, word maven and more died yesterday. And I first learned about his death via an alert on Twitter — in less than even the permitted 140 characters. Kind of ironic. But I guess a sign of the times. Sigh.

I enjoyed for many years reading Safire’s twice-weekly column. He was the token conservative among the gaggle of liberal writers and other miscreants who occupy prime space adjacent to the NYT editorials. But I absolutely loved his way with words — his ability to be precise yet concise and eloquent yet matter of fact.

An example. He called then-first lady Hillary Clinton a “congenital liar.” Ouch.

Here’s from the obit in the NYT:

Critics initially dismissed him as an apologist for the disgraced Nixon coterie. But he won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and for 32 years tenaciously attacked and defended foreign and domestic policies, and the foibles, of seven administrations. Along the way, he incurred enmity and admiration, and made a lot of powerful people squirm.

And more:

There were columns[New York Times Magazine On Language] 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!!

There are plenty of excellent writers around these days — and that will be true in the future as well. But my sense is that the quality of writing overall is declining — and will continue heading south as we become even more tethered to e-mail, text messaging, Twitter and so on. And that’s particularly true in business, government and education.

Let’s be honest. What’s the quality of writing that you see where you work?

And if you have had the misfortune to sit through a PowerPoint presentation recently, were you pleased with the experience and inspired to do something? Friends, Romans and countrymen — lend me your text-heavy bullet points. I digress.

Folks, writing involves thinking. And it doesn’t take all that much brain power to tap out a text message or Tweet. Just sayin’. And I believe e-mail (and blogging) makes us sloppy — and careless about grammar, punctuation and even accuracy.

That comment, by the way, applies to me as much as anyone. I used to sweat blood crafting dead-wood letters and business reports and so on. Now I dash off an e-mail text, a blog post, a Tweet — and well, hope for the best. Double sigh.

Too bad. I’ll bet Bill Safire never did that.

He started as a speechwriter. And I’ve always believed that writing speeches makes you a better writer. It forces you to write clearly — yet recognizing that you have basically only one shot to create understanding with an audience of individual listeners. And you must develop via words long and often complicated arguments.

Here’s Safire’s last NYT essay, “Never Retire.”

And his last “On Language” column. (Hat tip for both from

But here’s the line he wrote for Spiro Agnew to describe the press: “nattering nabobs of negativism.”


Words matter.

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