By: Joe Strupp
William Safire, the conservative voice on the New York Times Op-Ed page for more than three decades, will end his regular column in early 2005, a Times spokeswoman said Monday.
“He’s written it for a long time and has been talking to [Times Publisher] Arthur [Sulzberger Jr.] about this for a year and a half,” said spokeswoman Catherine Mathis. “His last column will be Jan. 24.”
Safire joined the paper in 1973 after working as a speechwriter for President Nixon, and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for distinguished commentary. He plans to continue his Sunday New York Times Magazine “On Language” feature, which began in 1979, Mathis said, but he will end his syndicated column.
“The New York Times without Bill Safire is all but unimaginable,” Sulzberger said in a statement. “Reaching for his column became a critical and enjoyable part of the day for our readers across the country and around the world. Whether you agreed with him or not was never the point. His writing is delightful, informed and engaging. So, too, is the man, who in addition to being a world-class columnist has been a world-class friend and colleague to a generation of Times men and women.”
Safire began his career in 1949 as a reporter for a profiles column in The New York Herald Tribune. From 1955 to 1960, he was vice president of a public-relations firm in New York and then became president of his own firm. He was responsible for bringing Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev together in the 1959 Moscow “kitchen debate” to publicize his homebuilding client’s kitchen. In 1968, he left to join Nixon’s presidential campaign.
The columnist turns 75 next month, and he said he plans to devote more time to The Dana Foundation, a non-profit organization active in neuroscience research, the arts, and education. He began working with the group 10 years ago and helped launched the Dana Press eight years ago. He will serve full time as chairman of the board.
“That is the main reason to leave the column,” Safire told E&P by phone from his Washington, D.C., office Monday. “I want to have another run at something new. I’ve always kept a lot of balls in the air, writing and lecturing and TV. The opinion editors have said that if I have a good idea and want to sound off, they are there.”
Safire attended Syracuse University, dropped out after two years, returned twice later to deliver commencement addresses, and is now a trustee. He served as a member of the Pulitzer Board from 1995 to 2004. Married and the father of two, Safire said he told Sulzberger more than a year ago that he wanted to end the column when the 2004 presidential election was over.
“I wanted the political campaign to be my last hurrah,” he said, adding that a Bush win and other Republican victories make it easier to leave. “I get a nice warm feeling from that.”
“This is the best job in journalism,” he said of his op-ed perch. “But I’ve always felt that you never retire. If you retire, you vegetate. There is a need for another career. I always tell everyone that three columns a week is not a full-time job. I will have a full-time job.”
Safire said he often enjoyed the column more when those he disagreed with were in power. “You can inveigh with glee when you are denouncing the political opposition,” he told E&P. “It is tougher when your guys are there because most of the time you agree with them.”
Looking back on his 31 years at the paper, Safire had mostly positive memories. He praised the Times leadership for giving him a chance and always backing him up. “I was looked at [by some Times staffers] as a Nixon flack when I came to the paper,” he recalled. “When [Nixon] resigned [in 1974], the newsroom exploded in an outpouring of glee. Abe [Rosenthal, former Times executive editor] came over, put his arm around me and said, ‘It must be a tough time for you.’ That was a rare side of Abe Rosenthal.”
Safire recalled that the Times’ Washington staff eventually warmed up to him after he saved the daughter of colleague James Naughton (later the head of the Poynter Institute) from drowning in a pool at a staff picnic. “My wife pushed me in to get her,” Safire said. “At that point, they kind of accepted me. I guess they thought I couldn’t be all bad.”
Asked to cite his most memorable columns, Safire recalled his 1978 series on former Carter Administration Budget Director Bert Lance, who was force to resign in 1977. That series won Safire his Pulitzer. “Curiously, he is one of my good friends now,” Safire said.
After more than 30 years of opinion writing, Safire said the most noticeable changes in the industry are: more reader responses, thanks to e-mail, and better writing — in “both the opinion reporting and the straight thumb-sucking,” he said. “Most of the hysteria of op-ed has gone over to cable television — leaving the op-d pages to be forced to say what they have to in 700 words. That forces the writer to sharpen his argument.”
Safire didn’t mind being the house conservative on a generally liberal page. “If you keep beating your spoon against the high chair at the Times,” he said, “you can have an impact.”