William Safire, the witty and cogent N.Y. Times columnist and rapier wordsmith, died today at a Maryland hospice at age 79. Pancreatic cancer took him out.

The tightness and clarity of his prose was a huge influence upon my own meager scribblings. I so enjoyed his stuff (“Yamani or ya life?“) that I decided early on to forgive Safire for having been a Nixon/Agnew speechwriter. On top of which I always half-loved those withering phrases he tapped out for Agnew — “effete corps of impudent snobs,” “nattering nabobs of negativism,” etc. And like everyone else I rarely missed his “On Language” columns, also in the Times.

Robert D. McFadden‘s obit says that “unlike most Washington columnists who offer judgments with Olympian detachment, Mr. Safire was a pugnacious contrarian who did much of his own reporting, called people liars in print and laced his opinions with outrageous wordplay.”