I loved William Safire — on language. He wrote about the English language with the authority of a pundit.
He was not as witty and amusing as Fowler; he did not have that lightness of touch.
But he was awesome in his encyclopaedic knowledge of language and grammar.
He reminded me of another famous American journalist, HL Mencken. One was as feisty and erudite as the other.
In Singapore, he will be remembered for his run-ins with the government. He criticized Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and the judiciary in this 1995 New York Times article. But later when they met at Davos in 1999, the interview ended with Safire saying,"Well, I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too", and Lee Kuan Yew laughing: "You are not a silly man, and I don't give you silly answers."
What I enjoyed, however, were Safire's New York Times columns on language.
What a coincidence that he wrote a column on "channelling" only three weeks before his death yesterday.
He was 79 and suffering from cancer. (The Nixon speechwriter and columnist remembered by his colleagues at the New York Times.)
No one can channel him, not the way he riffed off Hillary Clinton's ticking off a Congolese student who asked her what her husband thought, "I'm not going to be channelling my husband."
Spirits, mediums, Ouija boards, all found their way into that column — and poetry too.
He quoted Yeats after Krugman wrote: "Right now Mr. Obama’s backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isn’t living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity."
Safire pointed out "that’s based on William Butler Yeats's familiar The Second Coming, in which 'things fall apart; the centre cannot hold' and 'the best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.'
Krugman had not mentioned the poet or the poem, Safire did. It was typical of him.
The pundit in Safire could not resist parading his knowledge.
That might be a weakness in others. But isn't that what a journalist is expected to do?
He even wrote a column three years ago about how the old media is influencing the new media.
In the column, headlined Blargon, he wrote:
"Every walk of life and field of endeavour generates its own insiders' lingo. Those of us in the MSM — that's the superannuated, archaic mainstream media — have our own jargon, of which the first sentence of an article is the lede, the early edition is the bulldog and the guys working into the wee hours make up the lobster shift.
"Some of our special vocabulary is being stolen from us by the denizens of the world of Web logs. Above the fold — the top half of a standard-size newspaper page, where the major stories begin — now, in "blargon," is what we see on a blog's screen before we begin to scroll down. The jump — the continuation of an article on an inside page — is now a place to which the blog's readership is referred inside the Web site. A sidebar — which we fondly remember as a boxed, related article alongside the main newspaper article — is, to a blogger, a column down one side of the screen displaying advertisements, archived links or a list of other blogs called a blogroll. Even the reporter's byline, that coveted assertion of journalistic authorship, has been snatched by the writers derogated as "guys in pajamas" and changed to bye-line, an adios or similar farewell at the end of the blogger's politely expressed opinion or angry screed."
Note the pun,"blargon" — and the fact that this is a man in his 70s writing about blogs.
Nothing escaped his notice.
He was au courant to the end. This newsman never lost his nous.