I am a procrastinator. For the last ten years, I’ve been drafting a letter in my head to William Safire, the former Nixon speech writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, author and wordsmith. I was working on the letter again today. It involves a tombstone at Mount Vernon.
Basically, there’s a burial marker at George Washington’s plantation that pays tribute to one of Washington’s relatives. If memory serves me correctly, the Founding Father had a nephew or great nephew who, early in the eighteenth century, served as a judge. When he died, he was buried near General Washington, with a lengthy epitaph placed above his tomb. It praised the judge for being a good judge, a good Christian and a good, “condescening” human being.
It’s hard to imagine a 21st century American — famous or infamous — being described as “condescending” on their burial marker. From the moment I saw the description, I wondered: 1.) How and when did the word “condescending” evolve from a compliment to an insult? and 2.) Who would know the answer?
The first name that popped in my head, immediately, was William Safire. Safire loved words and Safire would know the answer. And it would make a heck of a column.
I jotted down the exact wording of the epitaph and then lost it. Dozens of times, I vowed to draft a letter, but never got around to it. Every time I read his column in the New York Times magazine, I’d say to myself, “Time to write that letter.” But I never did.
Twice, I was even in the Times newsroom and met all the big wigs (a story for another day), but I never crossed paths with Safire. And now, the great writer is gone.
By the way, in addition to writing speeches for Nixon and columns for the Times, Safire also wrote an outstanding book on the Book of Job. I read half of it, back when my kids were one and two years old, at a time when free time (and money) were scarce, then misplaced it. I’ve never come across another copy.
In February, when I’m at Powell’s books in Portland, I’ll try to track down another copy.
The Times has a story on Safire’s passing. He’ll surely be missed.