By Harriet P. Gross
When my sister — a very gifted teacher, now retired — got her American history class assignment many years ago, in a then-academically leading Chicago high school, she quickly realized that all the sophomore underachievers had been bunched together and put in her care. All but one, a quiet boy who was obviously quicker than the rest, but didn’t seem bothered by the placement, and didn’t create any animosity among his classmates, whom he was ready to help rather than egomaniacally “showing them up.”
On the fourth day of the semester, after the administrative powers-that-be had realized their error, Ruth received a note asking her to send Paul down to the office so that he could be reassigned to a more “proper” class for him. But instead of the boy, my sister sent back the message, with her own notation:
“If you take away my carrot, who will all the little donkeys run after?”
This is the way I, and I suspect most of my fellow English-language columnists in whatever venues, are feeling now that William Safire, our own “carrot,” has been taken from us.
Safire knew the mechanics of our medium better than anyone, with the possible exception of Richard Lederer. And he wrote columns better than anyone’s, with the possible exception of Russell Baker’s.
Here are the differences: Lederer writes about words, always using his own words to their very best advantage to amuse while educating — a “spoonful of sugar” approach to grammar in particular and linguistics in general. Baker, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his longtime New York Times column, was a subtle, quirky humorist. (I treasure my own aged, fading, first-generation Xerox copy of a column in which he used, in sentences that actually made sense, all the obscure words that those of us who are crossword puzzle addicts have come to know so very well — the South Sea Island boats, those extinct jungle animals, and all their friends and relatives that most English speakers will never encounter.)
In contrast, Safire wrote about politics. You didn’t have to agree with him to appreciate what he said and the way he said it. Sometimes he didn’t even agree with himself. He was never averse to changing his mind. Someone I’ve long forgotten once said, “Never say ‘always’ or ‘never.’ What makes you think that you know more today than you’ll know tomorrow?” This is not a Safire quote, but it might as well be.
Safire had rules for “columning,” but he wasn’t hide-bound by them. He didn’t think vain shows of intellect and arcane knowledge for their own sake were right and necessary — but he made such shows himself from time to time. He cautioned that if a columnist split his usual 700 words or so between two subjects, (s)he probably didn’t know enough about either one to fill the whole space with just one — but that didn’t stop him from making two-part contrasts himself. He said that creating a circle of a straight-line column, starting with a statement or a story or a quotation and bringing the reader back to it at the end, was a device employed by those who hadn’t really come to their own conclusions — yet that is the way many of us were taught to write, and mentored to write, and encouraged to write; and he was the same, and did the same, at least sometimes. Old habits are hard to break, and sometimes shouldn’t be broken, at least not entirely.
One thing that Safire was, was fearless. Something he did fearlessly was to make bold statements; another was to take the consequences of them. If he believed something, he said so — that was his privilege. If others believed differently, that was their privilege. And if they disagreed — no matter how virulently they aimed their anger at him — he didn’t have to believe them any more than they believed him. But there was education in the exchange; that was what he believed in. You have to have a certain kind of thick skin — not to believe that, but to act on the belief. Not all of us are so endowed.
William Safire died just before the start of Yom Kippur; this year, his old friends missed breaking the fast with him, as they’d done for so many previous years. But his legacy remains for those of us who column (Oh! I’m making a noun into a verb! A bad thing!) and will continue to follow our forever-crisp carrot, as long as we’re privileged to be in print ourselves.
By Harriet P. Gross