He is perhaps best known as a long-time syndicated political columnist for The New York Times and a regular contributor to "On Language" in the New York Times Magazine, a column on popular etymology, new or unusual usages, and other language-related topics.
From 1955 to 1960, Safire was a public relations executive. Previously, he had been a radio and television producer and a United States Army correspondent. Safire worked as a publicist for a homebuilder who exhibited a model home in Moscow in 1957. In the model home Richard Nixon and Nikita Khruschev had their famous "Kitchen Debate". Safire subsequently joined Nixon's campaign for the 1960 Presidential campaign, and again on the 1968 campaign. After Nixon's 1968 victory Safire served as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew; he is well known for having created Agnew's famous term, "nattering nabobs of negativism."
Safire joined the New York Times as a political columnist in 1973. In 1978, he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary on Bert Lance's alleged budgetary irregularities. However, subsequent investigations by Congress found no wrongdoing.
Upon announcing the retirement of Safire's political column in 2005, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, said:
Since 1995 Safire has served as a member of the Pulitzer Board. After ending his op-ed column, Safire became the full-time chief executive of the Dana Foundation where he has been chairman since 2000.
In 2006, Safire was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush.
After voting for Bill Clinton in 1992, Safire became one of the leading critics of Clinton's administration. Hillary Clinton in particular was often the target of his ire. He caused a mild tempest when he called her a "congenital liar"; Hillary responded that she didn't feel offended for herself, but for her mother's sake. According to the president's press secretary at the time, Mike McCurry, "the president, if he were not the president, would have delivered a more forceful response to that on the bridge of Mr. Safire's nose."
Safire was one of several voices who called for war with Iraq, and predicted a "quick war," with Iraqis cheering their liberators. Many readers who followed his columns in The New York Times felt dismayed when he consistently brought up the point that an Iraqi intelligence agent met with Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 attackers, in Prague, Czech Republic. This theory had been debunked by the CIA and other credible intelligence agencies (see Mohamed Atta's alleged Prague connection). Still Safire kept insisting that this theory was true and used it to make a case for war against Iraq. Safire had also said that "freed scientists" would lead coalition forces to "caches (Of weapons of mass destruction) no inspectors could find." This never happened, and no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.
Several prominent journalists have written in-depth criticisms of Safire's columns in the years after 9/11, including The Nation's David Corn and former 60 Minutes producer Barry Lando. "Safire's recent work - unburdened by factchecking, unchallenged by editors - shows he is more intent on manipulating than interpreting the available information," Corn wrote in 2004. On Salon.com, Lando details Safire's false accusations toward a French company for facilitating a weapons materials sale between China and Iraq - a sale that in fact never went through. Lando uses Safire's allegedly irresponsible and erroneous writing to address the larger question of op-ed columnists' accountability and how it differs from that of news reporters.