As a speechwriter, he made Spiro Agnew sound fizzy--"nattering nabobs of negativism" was his alliterative classic--and helped Richard Nixon explain his policies. (He later explained Nixon himself in a historically rich memoir, Before the Fall.) William Safire, who died Sept. 27 at 79, was not just a fighter--he was a champ. He had brio, savvy and insight into human nature. That's why he could write novels: because he was interested in what makes humans do what they do, in motives and twists of fate and unintended consequences.
He enjoyed his rise and wanted others to as well. Once, when I got a tough book review, he didn't call to commiserate; instead he joyfully barked, "Welcome to the NFL!" At the time, it was not a cliché. He probably made it a cliché. He probably coined it. But it was in his Pulitzer Prize--winning newspaper column that Safire became Safire. There he mastered and honed a natural pugnacity--a desire to "mix it up," as he put it. You really cared what he thought and weren't sure what he'd think because he could surprise you. And boy, did he wade in. When everyone was putting down Washington Mayor Marion Barry, he was alone in criticizing violations of Barry's privacy. He voted for Bill Clinton but pulled no punches toward him or Hillary. He gave me some of the best professional advice I've ever received: Write what you see, because "what history needs more of is first-person testimony." "Never feel guilty about reading; it's what you do to do what you do." "Never join a pile-on, but it's O.K. to start one." And this: When I told him his column was great, he said, "It's not a column, it's a pillar." It was.
Noonan is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan