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William Safire, "nattering nabobs" and the power of words

William Safire, the former Nixon speechwriter turned New York Times op-ed columnist, died today at age 79. He did more than any other American over the last generation to get people talking about words and phrases and the way that we use them. That makes it hard to find the perfect words to say about his passing. His life and his voluminous writings taught us that words have not only poetry -- and sometimes roots as intricate as a giant Sequoia tree could be jealous -- but also power, power that could be either righteous or destructive or both.

Safire is still remembered some 40 years later for the words that he put in the mouth of a previously inarticulate and later disgraced vice president, Spiro Agnew, and for one phrase in particular:

"Nattering nabobs of negativism."

It's such a memorable and jarring expression that we can almost forget why it was so important -- as the opening salvo of a political war that continues to this day. In an era -- this would be the late 1960s and early 1970s -- when the reality-based world was looking rather bleak, with new revelations about government spying and the White House waging secret military campaigns in Southeast Asia, it would be the Nixon White House that invented the strategy of not changing the message but instead declaring war on the messenger, the American news media:

And William Safire would be the muse of that campaign. Here's how the famous phase is described in Rick Perlstein's remarkable recent book on that era, "Nixonland":

At the California Republican Convention in San Diego, Agnew mentioned how Democratic candidate John Tunney had started riding in police cars before cameras -- "Tunney-come-lately." (After Ted Kennedy told students at Boston University that violent protest was immoral and futile, Agnew labeled him "Teddy-come-lately.") Then Agnew loosed Safire's most triumphant linguistic confection: "In the United States today, we have more than our share of nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club -- the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history."

Agnew knew the scribes would write about it, if only to mock him. That was good: Let the elites mock patriotism!

The words that William Safire penned and that Spiro Agnew mouthed actually had enormous impact that has lasted until this day. They helped foster among conservatives and the folks that Nixon called "the silent majority" a growing mistrust of the mainstream media, a mistrust that grew over two generations into a form of hatred. It also started a dangerous spiral of events -- journalists started bending backwards to kowtow to their conservative critics, beginning in the time of Reagan, an ill-advised shift that did not win back a single reader or viewer on the right. Instead, it caused a lot of folks on the left and even the center to wonder why the national media had stopped doing its job, stopped questioning authority.

Today, the vast majority of Americans of all political stripes -- conservative, liberal, centrist -- don't believe the "nattering nabobs of negativism, a.k.a. the mainstream media, in record numbers. In the long run, a New Media is emerging that may ultimately prove to be better than what it is replacing, but in the meantime the cost to America in the journalism that was lost during the run-up to the Iraq war and Wall Street's hijacking of the U.S. economy is incalculable.

Now that's a mission accomplished --and an amazing tribute to the power of a few words some four decades ago to start convincing people to distrust the words they read and hear today.

Don't get me wrong -- there is much to celebrate in the life of William Safire. His love of language and discovering the arcane roots of our everyday words and phrases was quite contagious, and some weeks his "On Language" column was the most entertaining piece of real estate in the the sprawling metropolis of ink that is the Sunday New York Times. And his politics were sometimes infuriating but also sometimes uplifting -- despite his ties to "Nixonland," he was at heart a defender of civil liberties -- and he was never dull.

But nothing else that William Safire wrote would have the power or the impact of those four memorable words that he pounded out on a typewriter, 39 years ago.