Arts & Culture

Let Us Bury Caesar: Remembering William Safire

There is no opening line William Safire wouldn’t loathe. He’d hate the impetuous presumption of an absolute statement, "And they say God has no sense of justice." He’d be tempted towards physical violence with the anecdotal "I once met the … Read More

By / October 1, 2009


There is no opening line William Safire wouldn’t loathe. He’d hate the impetuous presumption of an absolute statement, "And they say God has no sense of justice." He’d be tempted towards physical violence with the anecdotal "I once met the legendary Mr. Safire." In short, anything I write would probably just rankle his strict sensibilities.

This is one of those situations where, as a writer, I have to balance truth with emotion, yet accept immediately that the tale is biased, unworthy for distribution by the Associated Press. Good writers can do this: tell the story in plain, uncluttered language. They can make their point while they make you believe. They can shatter your notions while building them better, stronger, and with more power.

When it comes to William Safire, much will be written in the coming days of how his contributions, ponderings, and defense of the English language changed writing. It is even possible that many of these musings will be penned with a copy of Safire’s "Rules for Writers" posted in dangerous proximity. These rules are non-negotiable, for as Mr. Safire teaches us, without clarity of language, there can be no clarity of thought.

Let’s bury Caesar as I think he would have preferred, through etymological examination. Mr. Safire passed on the last of the Days of Awe, the time between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, wherein God decided who will live another year, and who will be voted onto a better island. These heavenly decrees are recorded in Sefer Hayim, the Book of Life. The root of Safire’s name traces to the Hebrew word sefer, meaning book. Yes, it can also mean sapphire, from sappir, a brilliant gem of remarkable value. It could trace to separ, or boundary, as in the limits of understanding or the margins of a page. It could even connect to safra, or scribe, a subject and an act Mr. Safire knew intimately and eloquently.

On Erev Yom Kippur, the night before Jewish people all over the world beg for one more chance to do better, God decided that Mr. Safire would be edited out of Sefer Hayim. We could ponder this loss with great sadness, and we will. But, consider this: perhaps in a time when the sanctity of language was becoming even more endangered and when lucid expression was of utmost importance, God needed the assistance of a strong editor. There is no one better suited than William Safire for the task.