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Sunday, May 1, 2016

A whip-smart word wonk

Sunday, October 11, 2009

(Photo)
Cokie and Steve Roberts
This week marked Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Observant Jews fast until sundown, then celebrate with a festive meal.

For more than 30 years, we were privileged to attend a "break fast" party hosted by Bill Safire, convivial (if occasionally cantankerous) conservative columnist, polished (and highly prolific) political pundit and whip-smart word wonk given to lilting (but also lacerating) linguistic legerdemain. (Bill was a great fan of alliteration, and the best-known line he ever wrote--voiced publicly by Vice President Spiro Agnew--called the press "nattering nabobs of negativism.")

This year, the party invitation arrived as usual in early September. We looked forward to walking through the door, or into the garden if the evening was a mild one, to be greeted by Bill's twinkling smile. (He lived just a few blocks from where we are writing this, in a neighborhood, ironically, once closed to Jews.)

Then a few weeks ago a note came from his wife, Helene: Bill was not feeling well, the party was canceled; hopefully, it would be renewed next year. It won't be. Bill died of pancreatic cancer the day before Yom Kippur. The next night we gathered with a small group of friends, all Safire regulars, and traded memories of our old pal. But we missed Bill, and the dishes he loved to serve that reflected his New York and Eastern European origins: pickled herring, beef brisket and a delectable noodle pudding called kugel.

Over the years, many people wanted to write about the Safire party, but Bill always discouraged them. Perhaps he was concerned that so many Jews gathering in one place would fuel anti-Semitic fantasies. And there were security issues: A determined terrorist could wipe out a big chunk of the capital's Jewish intelligentsia.

But the party so reflected Bill's character that, with his death, it's now appropriate to describe it. We were first invited when Steve joined the Washington, D.C., bureau of the New York Times in 1977, four years after Bill had become a columnist. Barry Goldwater's nomination in 1964 and Richard Nixon's victories in 1968 and 1972 (with Safire writing speeches for him) convinced a lot of papers that they had to reflect this new conservative uprising in their editorial pages. The Times had outbid the Washington Post, which wanted Safire as well.

Since Roberts is not obviously a Jewish name, Bill's assistant discreetly inquired about Steve's religious affiliation. And yes, his Catholic wife, Cokie, was definitely included in the invitation. During those first years, many guests would ask Cokie, in one way or another, "What are you doing here?" And she would jokingly reply, "You mean 'What is a nice Catholic girl like me doing in a place like this?'"

But anyone who knew Bill knew what she was doing there. As Safire the etymologist would tell you, the word "catholic" is derived from the Greek word "katholikos," meaning "universal." At his parties, the lowliest news clerks mixed with the highest editors; non-Jewish spouses were eagerly embraced; liberals and conservatives shared their lives while chomping chopped liver.

Those are moments that happen all too rarely in Washington these days: folks crossing ideological lines, and forming friendships, in church pews and school auditoriums, on ball fields and dog parks. Today, this city is full of rigid and self-righteous purists, on both sides, who fill their blogs and columns, political speeches and cable-TV shows, with sterile and predictable talking points.

Bill Safire was seldom predictable. With the possible exception of one subject--Israel--he was a fresh and fertile writer who thought for himself. Even though he had worked for Nixon and other Republicans, he was not interested in secondhand or warmed-over opinions. He called himself a "libertarian conservative," but you had to read Safire, or watch him on television, because you were never sure what he would say.

One example: When National Public Radio was going through a financial crisis and suffering fierce attacks from conservative critics, Cokie asked Bill to sign a newspaper ad supporting the network. "I can't do that," he replied. "The Times won't let me. But I can do something better: I can write a column supporting NPR." And he did.

Another example: Safire strongly endorsed the invasion of Iraq and believed that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction. But as a staunch civil libertarian, he vigorously condemned the administration's policy of torturing terrorist suspects for information.

Bill was his own man until the end, a warm, wise, wily, whip-smart word wonk.

Cokie Roberts' latest book is "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation"

(William Morrow, 2008).

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Cokie and Steve V. Roberts
Cokie and Steve V. Roberts