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Anthony Lewis

March 28, 2013 Leave a comment
Anthony Lewis, 2003

Anthony Lewis, 2003

[Matthew Peyton/Getty Images]

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.

[snip]

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.

[snip]

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.

And Christopher Lydon, earlier today at Radio Open Source:

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.

[snip]

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.

Categories: Journalism, Law, Obituary

Stan Musial

January 19, 2013 Leave a comment

St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial died today. I was too young to see him play at his peak. And when I began to go to baseball games, New York lacked a National league team, so the Cardinals didn’t come to town. But I saw him on TV, and I grew up understanding what a giant he was.

What made him a giant? The start of an answer lies in his stats, which you can examine here. Or, you can watch the excerpt above from a 1990 documentary, which shows his final at bats in 1963.

In the NYT obituary, Richard Goldstein offers this summary:

Musial won seven batting championships, hit 475 home runs and amassed 3,630 hits. His brilliance lay in his consistency. He had 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 on the road. He drove in 1,951 runs and scored 1,949 runs. And his power could be explosive: he set a major league record, equaled only once, when he hit five home runs in a doubleheader.

“There is only one way to pitch to Musial — under the plate,” Leo Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giant teams that Musial often victimized, once said.

[snip]

Musial played on three World Series championship teams, won three Most Valuable Player awards, had a career batting average of .331 while playing in the outfield and at first base, and was the fourth player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

He was the most cherished Cardinal of them all in a city that witnessed the exploits of Grover Cleveland Alexander and Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang, Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, Red Schoendienst, Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols.

I especially recommend Joe Posnanski’s blog post some time back, which he updated two months ago. Though brief, it is full of great tales. I’ll get you started with the first paragraph.

Stan Musial never got thrown out of a game. Never. Think about this for a moment. Musial played in 3,026 games in his career, or about as many as his contemporaries Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky played combined. He played across different American eras — he played in the big leagues before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, and he retired a few weeks before Kennedy was shot. He played when Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller ruled the Top 40 charts, and he played when Elvis was thin, and he played when Chubby Checker twisted. He played before television, and after John Glenn orbited the earth. And he never once got thrown out of a baseball game.

Read the rest.

Categories: Baseball, Obituary

Evan Connell

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

sonofmorningstar

The writer Evan Connell died last Thursday. In addition to novels, poetry, and essays, Connell produced the non-fiction gem Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn. The only one of his books that I have read, it has long been among my favorites.

In a NYT obituary, William Yardley tells us that Connell

spent many years in the San Francisco area, where he started writing an essay about Gen. George Armstrong Custer and could not stop. Soon he had a book, or what he thought should be one. It was called “Son of the Morning Star,” and initially no publisher would take it. One, North Point Press, which had published “Mrs. Bridge,” eventually did, releasing it in 1984, and the book became a surprise best seller.

ABC made a television movie based on the book in 1991.

In 2010, in a review of another author’s book on Custer’s Last Stand, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times recalled “Son of the Morning Star” as having “lasting visceral resonance” and described it as a “masterpiece.”

In 1985, as “Son of the Morning Star” was having a long ride on the best-seller list, Mr. Connell told The Times: “There are two explanations for writing the book. Just about all the kids in this country grew up on cowboys and Indians. Maybe now it’s ‘Star Wars,’ but when I grew up in Kansas City, you could send in box tops — from Quaker Oats, I think — and get something like a color picture of Sitting Bull.

“As far as this project goes,” he continued, “a few years ago I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next. I didn’t have any ideas for a novel, and for years whenever I couldn’t manufacture something successful, I simply worked on a subject that interested me. And the Old West came to mind.”

If you haven’t read Son of the Morning Star, I suggest you do, regardless of whether you think you have any interest in the subject. You’ll be in for a treat.

Categories: Books, Obituary

Ada Louise Huxtable

January 7, 2013 1 comment

huxtable

A month ago, I wrote about what I called a must-read piece by Ada Louise Huxtable on renovation plans for the New York Public Library, referring to her as a “famed architecture writer still at it at 91.” Alas, that was her final piece. She died earlier today.

In tomorrow’s NYT obituary, David Dunlap explains that she

pioneered modern architectural criticism in the pages of The New York Times, celebrating buildings that respected human dignity and civic history — and memorably scalding those that did not … . Beginning in 1963, as the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper, she opened the priestly precincts of design and planning to everyday readers. For that, she won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, in 1970.

Growing up in New York in those years, I had no idea that Huxtable was a pioneer. The NYT was our local paper. Whatever it did I took to be the norm. Reading the obit now, I recognize many of the then-new buildings she discussed as ones I watched rise or open. For instance, the Huntington Hartford art museum on Columbus Circle designed by Edward Durell Stone, which she said “resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops.”

hartfordstone

The Kennedy Center in Washington, another Stone building, came in for opprobrium too:

Albert Speer would have approved. The building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.

She was special. Read the full obit.

George McGovern

October 21, 2012 2 comments

George McGovern died today. The first year I was old enough to vote for president was 1972, thanks to the 26th amendment to the constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18 and enfranchised many of us for the first time. I voted for McGovern. Forty years later, I am glad I did, and wish I could have voted for him again.

Nixon won 49 states. McGovern won Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. The greatest landslide in history. Since then, McGovern has been regarded by Republicans as something of a joke. And by many Democrats as well, eager to run the other way. Their loss. He was a good man. An honest man. And he was right about many issues, the Vietnam War most notably. While Nixon was busy committing war crimes and lying to the country, McGovern spoke the truth.

Here we are again, with a Republican presidential nominee who is incapable of telling the truth and with a Democrat, I’m sorry to say, who seems to have learned more from Nixon than from McGovern, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding. (But hey, Nixon’s parter in war crime, Henry Kissinger, won the prize too, for ending the Vietnam War. Words fail.)

Nixon didn’t much like whistleblowers, but at least he brought Daniel Ellsberg to trial. Under Obama, Bradley Manning still languishes, indefinitely. Obama could have taught Nixon a thing or two.

May we honor George McGovern with greater honesty in our political discourse, starting with the third presidential debate tomorrow night.

Categories: Obituary, Politics

Irving Adler

September 27, 2012 4 comments

Irving Adler changed my life. He wrote The Giant Golden Book of Mathematics, which my parents gave me on my eighth birthday. I loved math, but I hadn’t yet decided to make it my life’s work. The book opened my eyes to the wider world of mathematics and its history, after which there was no turning back.

Adler died last Saturday. Excerpts below from the NYT obituary give some sense of his extraordinary life. I wish I had written to thank him.

Irving Adler, who wrote dozens of books on the elegant essentials of science and math, almost all of them directed toward capturing the curiosity of children and young adults, died on Saturday in Bennington, Vt. He was 99.

The cause was a stroke, his daughter, Peggy Adler, said.

Mr. Adler joined the American Communist Party in 1935. In 1952, at the height of the Red Scare, when he was chairman of the math department at Straubenmuller Textile High School on West 18th Street in Manhattan, he was subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigating Communist influence in schools. Invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, he refused to answer questions.

Mr. Adler became one of 378 New York City teachers ousted under New York State’s Feinberg Law, which made it illegal for teachers to advocate for the overthrow of the government by force.

The United States Supreme Court upheld his dismissal in 1952 (Adler v. Board of Education), but declared the Feinberg Law unconstitutional 15 years later.

[snip]

The wonders that Mr. Adler would illuminate in his 87 books — many written with and illustrated by his late wife Ruth Relis Adler — are evident in their titles. Among them are “How Life Began” (1957), “The Stars: Steppingstones Into Space” (1958), “Thinking Machines” (1961) and “Inside the Nucleus” (1963).

[snip]

Irving Adler was born in Manhattan on April 27, 1913, one of five children of Marcus and Celia Kress Adler, immigrants from what is now Poland. His father first worked as a house painter and later sold ice, coal, wood, seltzer and beer.

Irving was an outstanding student, entering Townsend Harris High School at 11 and graduating from City College with a degree in mathematics at 18. Soon after “he was teaching high school students that were older then him,” his daughter said.

Categories: Books, Math, Obituary

Line of the Week

August 23, 2012 1 comment

[Jeff Weeks]

It’s tough to compete with Missouri representative Todd Akin, who in the last week has given us what may be the line of the year. But let’s put politics aside — along with its concomitant lies, ignorance, and stupidity — and turn instead to mathematics. Bill Thurston, one of the great mathematicians of our time, died on Tuesday, way too young, at 65.

The NYT obituary does a passable job of conveying some sense of his importance, though it borders on the bizarre to learn that “Thurston was among a very rarefied group in his field that thinks deep theoretical thoughts with no particular practical application, a luxury he reveled in.” Just about everyone I spend my days with thinks theoretical thoughts with no particular practical application. I never thought we’re part of a rarefied group. But maybe the point is that our thoughts aren’t deep. In my case, I won’t argue.

The line of the week? It’s a remark by Thurston’s son Dylan:

Dylan Thurston, also a mathematician, said that despite working in a realm of rather cold abstractions, his father was personally very warm.

I picture Dylan saying this with a wink. We mathematicians don’t live in a realm of cold abstraction. Our abstractions are warm and fuzzy, good company in all circumstances. How warm we are is another matter.

——-

For more on Thurston’s work, see the short note by Evelyn Lamb at Scientific American.

Categories: Life, Math, Obituary

Louis Boroson

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

My 11th grade math teacher, Louis Boroson, died last November. I just learned of his death, thanks to a posting of the obituary notice on Facebook by one of my classmates. Reading the obit, I was reminded yet again of how little we know about the adults who mattered to us. We see them as one-dimensional, not appreciating the complex, multi-faceted lives they lead, nor how much we miss as we pass through our self-absorbed youth.

Mr. Boroson (as he was known to me) is described in the obituary as “labor union organizer, math teacher and longtime activist for social justice.” I knew him only in the second capacity, and even then, I wasn’t convinced he was all that knowledgeable a teacher, though his decency and concern for others shined through.

We were not the best match. I, talented at math from a young age and deciding at 8 that I would be a mathematician; Mr. Boroson, as the obit explains, becoming the entire math department of a small school in his first position, having to teach “himself the curriculum every night before teaching it to students.” Our high school, now widely recognized as among the best in New York State with a vast array of offerings, had few options for accelerated students at the time. And through an unfortunate set of circumstance, owing to an experiment with the math curriculum in 9th grade for those of us in the accelerated or honors track that apparently was deemed a failure, we were basically covering much the same ground in 11th grade. It was a lost year for me. I would take my math at a local college the next year, but that year I just bided my time. Class was deathly boring and Mr. Boroson wasn’t equipped to offer me any alternatives.

One consequence was that for the only time in my years at school, I became something of a nuisance. I was always a good boy, never talking out of turn, never causing any behavioral problems, doing everything asked of me. But not in Mr. Boroson’s class. I was unhappy, he was unhappy, no solution presented itself. Later in the year he would suggest, on occasion, that I help other students who were having difficulty. I can’t remember how that worked out.

The memory that stands out, though, is of an entirely different nature. Spring of that year was the spring of 1968. War. Assassination. And locally, protests at Columbia University culminating in the student takeover of the president’s office in Low Library. That events of the real world could enter our high school classroom was beyond my imagination, until Mr. Boroson brought them in. On April 30th, the New York City police forcibly removed the occupiers. The next day, Mr. Boroson put math aside and led a discussion of the Columbia protest.

This is the Mr. Boroson I remember with respect, warmth, and admiration, one whose “commitment to his students went well beyond the math curriculum.” The obituary goes on to explain that “he was committed to helping students think critically about the political environment, and was particularly devoted to supporting students who seemed adrift. He began every math class by hosting a discussion on current events, encouraging friendly debate among his students.” No daily current events discussions back then, but the seeds were there.

The obituary quotes Barbara Murphy, my 10th grade English teacher, describing him as “a generous, progressive, open-minded man who willingly and wholeheartedly gave to his students, to his colleagues, to the world at-large with an optimism and spirit that encouraged the best in those he touched.” A good man. I wish I had the opportunity to renew our acquaintance later.

Categories: Math, Obituary

Carmine Smeraldo

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment

[From the website]

Gail and I were sad to learn of the death of Carmine Smeraldo, the founder-owner of the Seattle restaurant Il Terrazzo Carmine. I have written about Carmine’s many times, most recently after we ate there in November to celebrate Gail’s birthday. We have celebrated many birthdays there in recent years, and always wonder why we don’t go more often. I love their cannelloni, their rigatoni, their constantly changing risotto specials, their lamb, their green peppercorn steak. Gail’s partial to their ossobuco. But more than that, it’s such a warm and welcoming place. Carmine will be greatly missed.

Here’s an excerpt from yesterday’s Seattle Times obituary.

The food is one thing at Il Terrazzo Carmine.

Then there was the man.

Carmine Smeraldo would greet customers at his Pioneer Square restaurant with warmth, offering a handshake, or oftentimes, a hug. He knew loyal crowds turned up for perfectly smoked salmon dishes and handmade ravioli stuffed with bursts of wild mushroom.

But he also knew his customers wanted more. They came for an experience, an escape, a desire to envelop their senses and return to their lives a little happier than how they felt an hour — or two, or three — before.

At this, Mr. Smeraldo was the master.

[snip]

The interior summoned Mr. Smeraldo’s homeland with its terra cotta floors, rustic chandeliers and high ceilings. It conveyed a feeling of “old-school romance,” said Seattle Times restaurant critic Nancy Leson.

Categories: Obituary, Restaurants

Joe Frazier

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

You know, of course, that Joe Frazier died last night. I write only to note my surprise at how moved I’ve been today by some of the pieces I’ve read about him, most notably David Remnick’s reflections at The New Yorker.

I so dislike the mere existence of boxing that I avert my eyes when I accidentally stumble on an article about it in the paper or at a website, turning the page or clicking away as quickly as possible. Yet, I grew up at a time when boxing still was part of mainstream culture. Indeed, heavyweight championship bouts were as big a part of the sporting calendar as the World Series, or as the Super Bowl is now. Surely the first Swede I knew of, or, to be more precise, the first person whose existence brought to my attention the notion that there were such things as Swedes, was Ingemar Johansson. (But then there’s that contemporaneous Swede, Dag_Hammarskjöld. I’m pretty sure I knew of Johansson first. Hammarskjöld would be Swede number two.) Johansson’s championship victory over Floyd Patterson, or maybe Patterson’s win in the re-match, would have been the first boxing match I knew of. And then Patterson lost to Sonny Liston, and then Liston lost to Muhammed Ali (still Cassius Clay), and so on, until we came to the two great Ali-Frazier matches, the first and third of three.

I can almost make myself believe, as I read today about the third one, the Thrilla in Manila, that I watched it live. Then I remember that that wasn’t an option. The major boxing matches would be shown on TV days later. For live action, one would have to be content with round-by-round summaries on the radio. I listened to those summaries. I actually cared.

Remnick, who knows a thing or two about Ali and Frazier, gives some sense in his remembrance of why one might care:

I’ve watched the fight more times than I can count. I rarely watch boxing much these days, mainly because it’s hard to countenance a sport that I would never let my kids take part in. And yet I can’t resist this spectacle of will. As Frazier sat on his stool after the fourteenth round, a round in which Ali had punched him so hard with a right hand that Frazier’s mouthpiece went flying into the seats, a round in which it became obvious that he could no longer defend himself, his manager Eddie Futch had to insist that it was over. He would not allow his man to die in the ring—which, if you watch the video, seems like a distinct possibility.

“Joe,” Futch said, “I’m going to stop it.”

“No, no, Eddie you can’t do that to me,” Frazier said softly.

“You couldn’t see in the last two rounds,” Futch said. “What makes you think ya gonna see in the fifteenth?”

“I want him, boss,” Frazier said.

“Sit down, son,” Futch said, placing a hand on his fighter’s shoulder. “It’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today.”

Categories: Obituary, Sports