January 24, 2005


'Never Retire' (WILLIAM SAFIRE, 1/24/05, NY Times)

The Nobel laureate James Watson, who started a revolution in science as co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, put it to me straight a couple of years ago: "Never retire. Your brain needs exercise or it will atrophy."

Why, then, am I bidding Op-Ed readers farewell today after more than 3,000 columns? Nobody pushed me; at 75, I'm in good shape, not afflicted with political ennui; and my recent column about tsunami injustice and the Book of Job drew the biggest mail response in 32 years of pounding out punditry.

Here's why I'm outta here: In an interview 50 years before, the aging adman Bruce Barton told me something like Watson's advice about the need to keep trying something new, which I punched up into "When you're through changing, you're through." He gladly adopted the aphorism, which I've been attributing to him ever since.

Combine those two bits of counsel - never retire, but plan to change your career to keep your synapses snapping - and you can see the path I'm now taking.

William Safire to End Op-Ed Run at N.Y. Times (Howard Kurtz, November 16, 2004, Washington Post)
When William Safire left the Nixon White House to hold forth on the op-ed page of the New York Times, many readers reacted with disbelief, as if an intruder were defiling their liberal temple.

After three decades, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist has become a comfortable fixture at the paper, a must-read even for those who disagree with his conservative views.

Safire, 74, said yesterday he is giving up the column in January. "It's time to leave when you're still hitting the long ball and have something else you want to do," he said. Safire said he told Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. last year that the 2004 campaign would be his "last hurrah" and that Sulzberger "expressed the proper dismay" but urged him not to give up his "On Language" column. Safire will continue that idiosyncratic column for the paper's Sunday magazine. [...]

Safire was "an apostate once," abandoning the first President Bush to vote for Bill Clinton in 1992. But Safire later soured on the 42nd president, and when he called Hillary Rodham Clinton a "congenital liar," her husband said he wanted to punch the columnist in the nose.

"I always thought highly of him until the last year or so," said liberal blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, who has challenged Safire columns contending there were links between 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Marshall said he thought Safire was either being dishonest or guilty of "great sloppiness."

Safire was a New York publicist who helped stage the Moscow "kitchen debate" between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 that helped show off a homebuilder client's kitchen. Two years after joining Nixon's staff during the 1968 campaign, he wrote one of the most famous slams against journalists -- calling them "nattering nabobs of negativism" -- in a speech for Vice President Spiro Agnew.

When Safire joined the Times Washington bureau in 1973 -- after turning down a similar offer from The Washington Post -- "there was a certain built-in hostility here," he said. Referring to then-Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Sr., Safire said that "Punch was under terrific criticism for hiring a Nixon flack, particularly during Watergate," which erupted into a full-fledged scandal a week after Safire left Nixon's staff.

The ice melted after a company picnic at which a staffer's child fell into the pool and "my wife pushed me in" to rescue the child. "All of a sudden I was a hero."

Safire said the late columnist Stewart Alsop offered advice on the art of writing, including "Never sell out, except for a really good anecdote." Safire's passion on privacy and civil liberties issues stems from his discovery that Nixon had him wiretapped during his White House tenure.

His endorsement of Bill Clinton bordered on the unforgivable, but his novel, Freedom: A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War is so good as to redeem him.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 24, 2005 12:00 AM

His endorsement of Bill Clinton was the loudest and clearest signal that Old Bush was a complete loser. 65% of Americans having lived through the 4 years of nightmare that was his Presidency voted for someone else.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 6:32 AM

They made a mistake.

Posted by: oj at January 24, 2005 7:05 AM

As bad as Clinton was, I'm still glad I voted for Perot twice and would happily do so again rather than elect the idiots the GOP nominated.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 8:25 AM

Proving the point.

Posted by: oj at January 24, 2005 8:42 AM

The real question is whether the Times will have the cojohns to appoint OJ to succeed him.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 24, 2005 2:18 PM

Or perhaps they will ask Bart.

Posted by: ratbert at January 24, 2005 3:17 PM

It's OJ who defines Conservatism in our time.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 24, 2005 7:19 PM
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