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William Safire's Unconventional Thinking an Inspiration

Thursday, 01 Oct 2009 03:02 PM

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Thousands of writers, columnists, and commentators are qualified to write and say all the marvelous things being said now about William Safire since he died in late September. I'm the only one qualified to tell the story that follows. I’m sure it would be a personal and professional sin for me not to.

It’s not surprising that many not-so-marvelous things are also being said about William Safire. Doesn't lightning strike only the highest peaks? If every Safire legend were a brick, we could build a nice-sized house: "Nattering Nabobs of Negativism;" the ingenious engineering of Nikita Khrushchev and then-Vice President Richard Nixon into the model American kitchen together at a Moscow exhibition; performing the photo-op by catching the AP photographer's camera like a long basketball pass over the heads of the crowd; career-derailers for the likes of Bobby Ray Inman and Bert Lance; long-time host of the post-Yom Kippur breaking-of-the-fast for major Jewish government and media figures in Washington; his great leap from the Nixon White House to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times; and enough et ceteras to add on a brick garage.

Though it’s not widely known, Safire is the only known person ever to tell Greta Garbo, "I want to be alone!" As a young journalist he had committed some forgotten-but-terrible mistake and sat dejectedly on the curb, head in hands, hoping only to be run over by a truck. A passing woman took pity on him and tried to engage him in conversation. He wasn't in the mood. She turned out to be Greta Garbo, who, owing to her Swedish background, pronounced the phrase for which she was famous "I VANT to be alone!"

If it weren't for Safire I would have been blocked from the profession of my dreams at age 27. Safire was one "Bill" I could never think of as "William." I can't explain it. He was just "Bill Safire" and that was fine and final. After college and the army, I veered away from the "vanilla" pathway into my beloved journalism. I didn't follow the pattern of working for two years at my hometown newspaper, then a year-and-a-half for a wire service in my state capital followed by a stint in a TV newsroom in some significant city closer to New York.

Rather, I shipped out with the Norwegian Merchant Marine, hitch-hiked across Europe, studied every language I could find a textbook in, wheedled my way behind the Iron Curtain while Stalin was still the boss, worked with student movements in the free world to destroy the agenda of the powerful Communist International Union of Students (which we did, with a little help from the Hungarian Revolution), traded deep into the "white night" on the Leningrad black market, physically carried refugees from Hungary into Austria, and resettled some of them in Greensboro, N.C. — you know; that kind of thing.

When I drove my 1953 Chrysler into New York to look for a real job in the summer of 1957 I thought those who did the hiring at newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV outfits would whisk me past all those "vanilla" wannabes and show me my seat in a newsroom. What an awakening. I thought the news bosses making notes about me would use one-word descriptions like "imaginative" and "adventurous". No way. They used words like "erratic" and even "unstable”! The owner of one employment agency patiently explained to me why he dared not even send me out for a job interview. "You have too many unexplained years since graduation and the army”, he said. "We can't risk our firm's reputation by sending out job candidates who failed to take any positive career steps for four years!"

I had started looking for a job in early July. It was now mid-September. Then "Bill" happened to me.

I ran into a friend from the University of North Carolina who told me he had a friend at NBC. That friend had a friend who produced summer theater at Jones Beach, Long Island. That friend was nice enough to meet with me and hear my tale. Afterwards he said, "You sound like a Tex McCrary type to me. I'll call my friend Bill Safire in Tex's office." My heart leapt. I'd become familiar with Tex and his wife and broadcast partner, Jinx Falkenberg; they had two daily radio shows and a TV show in New York. I admired them a lot. That kind of broadcasting was exactly what I wanted to do. And Bill, nowhere near 30 yet, was McCrary's most trusted main man.

Among Bill Safire's abilities was forgoing small talk and getting down to the burlap at once without seeming rude. I knew I was in from the get-go. Bill beamed upon hearing of every one of my "non-career steps," interrupting me to ask questions and occasionally returning to what I'd described two or three escapades ago to ask more questions. After a nice long talk, Bill pointed to a door and said, "You see that door? That's McCrary's door. My job is to keep people out of there. I admit one person every year. You're the one I'm sending in this year!" And, with Bill's recommendation, Tex McCrary told me I was hired before I could even sit down. Not only that, but my title was "radio producer," even though I had no experience at that task.

All my "sins" of unfocused professional wackiness were washed away. And that was only because of my good fortune in meeting someone in authority with the grandness of outlook to reward me for precisely the same moves that led those with smaller minds to punish me. Don't congratulate Bill Safire for being able to "think outside the box”; Bill was never inside the box, nor anywhere near it.

The result has been a rich and continuing lifetime in talk radio and other media. I will not unleash a necklace of marvelous qualities that inhabited Bill Safire. In football they call it "piling on." Others can do that. Just include me in every compliment ever directed at Bill Safire. Just pretend I'm saying it with a voice louder than the others.

Others may say they knew Bill better. Others may say they admired him more. There's no way to prove that.

I think I can prove that no one in the world outside his family owes Bill Safire more than I do.

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