Some of you have probably noted the passing of the NY TIMES columnist and former Nixon speech writer, William Safire. Bill Safire, as he was apparently known by everyone, was one of the very few right-wing pundits whom I could stomach. He was, by all accounts, a decent man with a genuine commitment to individual liberties, despite his conservative bent. He also had a commendable passion for language, and a puckish wit.
Odd as it may seem, I once had an exchange of letters with him [in a manner of speaking]. Herewith my letter to the NY TIMES, and his hand-written response.
February 8, 1999
To the Editor:
I was astonished and dismayed to see William Safire, in today's Op-Ed column, refer to Vernon Jordan's phrase "Mother wit" as a "rich dialect phrase." Apparently, when Mr. Safire sees a Black man using a phrase that is not found on the tongues of Talk Show hosts or New York cabbies, he assumes it must be Ebonics.
For the phrase "mother wit," permit me to refer you to the Critique of Pure Reason of Immanuel Kant. The following appears in the opening pages of the Transcendental Analytic, at page 133 of the first edition: "It is the specific quality of so-called mother-wit [Mutterswitzes]." Mr. Safire might also have referred to the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the phrase in English to 1440.
Sincerely, etc etc.
Safire sent the letter back with the following handwritten note: "Sir -- I've done a language column on this, that will appear in the NYT Magazine. Thanks for writing --- Bill Safire
Maybe I am just getting old, but I feel the need now and again to acknowledge the humanity of my enemies.