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I’ve wanted to write about Anthony Lewis since learning of his death three days ago. He was my favorite New York Times columnist for many years. More recently, I’ve enjoyed his pieces in the New York Review of Books. But I don’t have anything specific to say. Let me turn instead to a few of the (many) remembrances of him.
First, basic facts from Adam Liptak’s NYT obituary.
Anthony Lewis, a former New York Times reporter and columnist whose work won two Pulitzer Prizes and transformed American legal journalism, died on Monday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 85. …
Mr. Lewis brought passionate engagement to his two great themes: justice and the role of the press in a democracy. His column, called “At Home Abroad” or “Abroad at Home” depending on where he was writing from, appeared on the Op-Ed page of The Times for more than 30 years, until 2001. His voice was liberal, learned, conversational and direct.
As a reporter, Mr. Lewis brought an entirely new approach to coverage of the Supreme Court, for which he won his second Pulitzer, in 1963.
“He brought context to the law,” said Ronald K. L. Collins, a scholar at the University of Washington who compiled a bibliography of Mr. Lewis’s work. “He had an incredible talent in making the law not only intelligible but also in making it compelling.”
Before Mr. Lewis started covering the Supreme Court, press reports on its decisions were apt to be pedestrian recitations by journalists without legal training, rarely examining the court’s reasoning or grappling with the context and consequences of particular rulings. Mr. Lewis’s thorough knowledge of the court’s work changed that. His articles were virtual tutorials about currents in legal thinking, written with ease and sweep and an ability to render complex matters accessible.
Mr. Lewis’s coverage of the court impressed Justice Felix Frankfurter, who called Mr. Reston. “I can’t believe what this young man achieved,” Justice Frankfurter said, as Mr. Reston recalled in his memoir, “Deadline.” “There are not two justices of this court who have such a grasp of these cases.”
Lincoln Caplan, writing at The American Scholar:
“The Constitution remains our fundamental law,” Anthony Lewis wrote, “because great judges have read it in that spirit.” Covering the Supreme Court for The New York Times in the 1960s, he was on hand when justices on the Warren Court did just that. Simply and eloquently, he explained how they made the court a central arbiter in American life and shaped the country’s march toward equality.
Lewis, who died Monday at 85, played an extraordinary role in that shaping. The court’s landmark decisions about racial justice, one person-one vote, and other deeply destabilizing social issues took hold because of the trust of the American people. Lewis helped foster that trust, through the authority and humane intelligence of his reporting and writing.
He possessed a vivid, passionate intellect, and had the moral focus of a rabbi. He worked intensely in the texts, the talk, and the traditions of the Court, but that effort appeared to be an immersion more than work. The lesson I drew from his model was that, even for someone as gifted as he, hard work was essential to giving the Court its due—especially so for those of us following the Court who don’t have the exceptional gifts he had.
Because he had extraordinary access to justices and his writing helped elevate the stature of the Supreme Court, he was sometimes criticized as an insider and, in some sense, a captive of the institution. But when it let him down, as it did dramatically in Bush v. Gore, making a political ruling to throw the 2000 election to George W. Bush, he reminded readers of his uncompromising independence.
He loved the Supreme Court as an American institution, but loved the Constitution more. Another lesson I drew from his model was that, while the Court always deserves the respect of anyone covering it, that respect sometimes requires saying sharply why you think a ruling it makes is wrong. …
Anthony Lewis’s voice was from the Old Testament as well—awe-inspiring, judgmental, and righteous.
The best fun of being president of the US, I often thought, would be appointing Anthony Lewis to the Supreme Court. He was a non-lawyer with a persuasive understanding of the gift and genius of the Constitution. He had a historian’s grasp on how the law evolved. Justice Frankfurter said Tony knew the cases before the Court better than most of the sitting judges. And he could unfold the issues in lucid prose that grabbed me as a teen-age reader of the New York Times.
Tony leaves us, I’d say, a memorable model for the best and broadest idea of a liberal at work. It wasn’t about dogma, much less radicalism. It was temperament as much as politics. It was about a modest optimism, a belief that institutions, even societies, could work on their flaws and get better. He was the human embodiment of the Warren Court, in that sense. He made a pair with his friend Justice William Brennan, who stood also for civility, compromise, persistence on an upward course. They stood for that era of reform in civil rights, in one-man-one-vote political representation, in the protection of defendants’ rights and the expansion of free speech and expression. Tony goaded the country with columns and landmark books on those central subjects, and by gum, the country got better. It can sound almost quaint, but he knew for certain that there were remedies for real ills in patient, hard-working devotion to our ideals in the Constitution and the law. So he never let up, and he never despaired.
One more quote, from Lydon again:
My favorite Tony Lewis columns – oddly unmentioned in the Times obit – might have been his answer to the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, the Nixon-Kissinger “terror bombing” of Hanoi – with no measurable purpose or benefit. Peace was at hand, they had said, the war all but over, but American B-52s poured it on: 2000 strikes over 11 days. “An episode that will live in infamy,” Tony Lewis wrote. And lest we forget he kept rewriting that column every Christmas for a decade. The lessons for Americans were still: “Beware obsession. Beware secrecy. Beware concentrated power. Beware men untouched by concern for the moral consequences of their acts.”
To read that Lewis column, from December 23, 1972, click here. And do read it. It’s as powerful today as it was forty-one years ago.