September 27, 2009 / 6:43 PM / 10 years ago

NY Times columnist William Safire dead at 79

NEW YORK (Reuters) - William Safire, the former speechwriter for Richard Nixon who won a Pulitzer Prize for columns on politics and language for The New York Times, died on Sunday, the newspaper said. He was 79.

U.S. President George W. Bush (R) honors William Safire as one of the 2006 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House in Washington, December 15, 2006. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Safire died at a hospice in Rockville, Maryland, after suffering from pancreatic cancer, spokeswoman Diane McNulty said.

Safire, known for his conservative voice on The Times’ mostly liberal opinion pages, received a Pulitzer for commentary in 1978. In 1979 he began writing the newspaper’s On Language column, in which he examined the origins of words and phrases and their proper usage.

He served for a decade on the board that awards the Pulitzer, and retired from his twice-weekly political column in 2005.

Safire’s last column for the newspaper appeared just two weeks ago.

Before joining The Times in 1973, Safire worked in politically oriented public relations and joined the Nixon White House speechwriting team in 1968.

He was credited with coining the phrases “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hysterical hypochondriacs of history,” used by then-Vice President Spiro Agnew to describe the U.S. media.

Safire was married and had two children.

He wrote several novels including the bestseller “Full Disclosure,” as well as several nonfiction books on politics and language.

A New York City native, he was popular even with readers who took issue with his conservative political views in part because he enthusiastically engaged them and solicited contributions and input on the origins and foibles of modern language.

His last On Language column appeared two weeks ago. Entitled “Bending the curve,” it explored the history and popularity of that phrase.

He ended the piece with a quote from a reader who had written to thank him for a recent column’s citation, which the reader said had refreshed “the halcyon days of my youth.”

Writing by Bill Trott and Chris Michaud; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Philip Barbara

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