What I Learned From William Safire

William Safire, a Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed columnist for The New York Times for 32 years, speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon, and chronicler of the popular lexicon in his weekly column, On Language, in The New York Times Magazine, died Sunday. The self-described "conservative libertarian" was a right-winger making waves in a sea of lefties, and for the balance of 2005 and most of 2006 he was my boss.

In early 2005, he gave up his op-ed column—though he retained On Language, which he started in 1979—to become the chair of the Dana Foundation. As his researcher, I'd go to his office there every week to deliver my manila files of linguistic legwork. Between the two of us and his secretary, Rosemary Shields, we were a Perry Mason, Paul Drake, and Della Street-esque trio committed to the weekly defense of the English language.

I had just turned 24 when I went to work for Mr. Safire, as he instructed me to call him, happy to be on board at $14 an hour for 16 hours per week. I occasionally grumbled about the pay and hours, particularly when he'd place the odd Sunday-night call about some lexical matter. Now, I view my penurious wages as something akin to a weekly stipend while attending the best punditry school in the country. Each week was my own personal tutorial with one of the trade's burnished lions, and he was a savvy mentor—playful, exacting, stern, and encouraging. "I'm for you," he'd say, and then he would grade my most recent research file with a C-. Then he'd tell me why, what to do better, and send me off again.

My lessons included how to cultivate a source—to know when to lean on him and when to lay off—how to get a source on the phone (the "hook," he called it, using a bit of old Army slang), and that a nearly illegible shorthand would do, as long as you recognized and scratched down the quote that mattered.

The language beat is an unusual one for a cub reporter, though Safire's instruction is as applicable to any beat I've yet taken. For him the story of a word only started at its definition, and he exhorted me to always dig deeper. "I can look it up if I want to know what it means," he'd say. "I want to know why it means that, what term it replaced, what word is going to replace it, what's its opposite, and why did the guy who said it say it, and not something else?"

As a stylist Safire, had few equals, particularly when pitted against the grandfatherly punsters and hidebound grammarians who usually inhabit the discussion of our language. His "nattering nabobs of negativism," written for Spiro Agnew, is enshrined in 20th-century political lore, and each column had tight, acrobatic prose, proving that in tackling a subject seriously, one needn't sacrifice style. We only occasionally discussed nut grafs, buried ledes, and the rest of journalism's intricacies, but one easily finds them in his writing, their yeoman's work seeming effortless amid the swirling metaphor and erudite alliteration.

As newsrooms shrink and veterans take buyouts, I feel all the more fortunate to have studied with such a craftsman. We quickly fell into roles straight from an old newspaper film. He'd call me "kiddo" and tell me to "keep sluggin' " each time he signed off on the phone. I took to calling him "boss" or "chief" and hopped to it when his calls came in. I've never felt as hard-working as when a deadline loomed and Safire was hungry for another quote. "How are you going to feed the monster?" he'd ask by way of wanting to see my research.

Oddly, we never talked politics, except when he thought the free press was being trampled or journalists were being deprived of needed access. I remember reporter Judith Miller coming in to Safire's office wearing dark glasses at the height of the controversy she was embroiled in. He hurried the worn-out-looking woman into his office like a protective parent. Just a glance told me that any more chat about language was done for the day; I could fax over any more great discoveries.

Linguistic politics, on the other hand, were a favorite topic of his. "When enough people are wrong, they're right," he'd say of misused words, and when it came to On Language, he would zap the "loony left" and the "troglodyte right" with equal gusto.

Two years after I'd left Safire's employ, I was proud to send him my first work as a fashion columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Safire's sense of sartorial style wasn't as advanced as his prodigious penchant for punning—a favorite ball cap on his coat rack read PRESS ON A HEAD.

But he still was a major influence on my fashion column. I've always come back to his idea that a columnist is worthless if he's only opinion and no reporting. I don't go to press until I've done an interview or two, having gone out to find the story.

I last saw him in March in Washington, D.C., and before he'd even said hello, he'd put me to work, getting my opinion on an e-mail he was sending to a lexicographer. He then asked after my wife and me (he'd advocated that I marry her for some time) and, lest our banter grow prosaic in tone, inquired, "Have you any progeny?"

His most lasting bit of advice, though, came on my first day. As I was leaving for the day, Mr. Safire handed me two volumes of his collected On Language columns and suggested I leaf through them to get a better idea of what he did. Hoping to appear wry, I said, "What, you're not going to autograph them?" Without missing a beat he took my copy of The Language Maven Strikes Again, uncapped his pen, and wrote, "To Aaron, Get to work."