William Safire, the Nixon speechwriter turned Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, cared deeply about words and the way we use them. It’s fitting, then, that his obituary today paid homage to his longtime column on language as well as his famously alliterative phrase about the press, “the nattering nabobs of negativism.” The Times’ Robert D. McFadden also showed us how the use of small but specific details add up to a masterful description:
He was hardly the image of a buttoned-down Times man: The shoes needed a shine, the gray hair a trim. Back in the days of suits, his jacket was rumpled, the shirt collar open, the tie askew. He was tall but bent — a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on.
The obit also included, for both our edification and amusement, 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!!
Safire lived by words. And he left us words to live by.