The Passion and Eloquence of Anthony Lewis
In this May 6, 1963 file photo, New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis reads about the Pulitzer Prizes while at the Boston bureau of The Associated Press, in Boston, as he won the year's Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. (AP Photo/File)
In announcing the death of Anthony Lewis at the age of 85, the New York Times headline somewhat anachronistically focused on how he “Transformed Coverage of the Supreme Court.” This was true: Lewis did bring “an entirely new approach to coverage of the Supreme Court, for which he won his second Pulitzer, in 1963.” And yes, his 1964 book, Gideon’s Trumpet, which told the story of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Court’s decision of the previous year that guaranteed lawyers to poor defendants charged with serious crimes, “has never been out of print since it was published.”
But the obit was written by Adam Liptak, who, like Anthony Lewis fifty years ago, is a Times legal correspondent. Had I been assigned the piece, I would have focused instead on the remarkable three-decade career that followed his Supreme Court coverage: the period, beginning in 1969, when Lewis established himself as the bravest and most eloquent columnist of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras.
The Times never planned to give Lewis a column. He had been sent to London owing to his close friendship with Robert Kennedy, which some feared might compromise his objectivity. But when publisher Punch Sulzberger picked the volcanic A.M. Rosenthal to be the paper’s executive editor, he asked the far calmer Lewis to return to New York to be his deputy. Rosenthal, however, had already offered the job to Seymour Topping. Sulzberger decided to respect this, but forgot to mention it to Lewis. So when the latter showed up for work on what he expected to be his first day as deputy, Sulzberger apologized for his error and offered the op-ed column as consolation.
Lewis planned to write his column from Washington and even found a house in the capital. But he decided, almost immediately, “that I could not live [there] because I could not write about public figures the way I wanted to”—that is, “unabashedly critical.” So he moved to Boston and, occasionally teaching at Harvard Law School, remained there for the next four decades, writing not only for the Times but also, following his retirement, for The Nation and The New York Review of Books.
By moving out of town and, more important, by refusing to countenance the assumptions of official Washington rhetoric regardless of who was president, Lewis willfully forfeited the direct influence over policy that his prominent perch at the Times might have accorded him. Instead, he played the role mapped out in the 1920s by Walter Lippmann: to educate the public in the hope that they would make more intelligent choices about their leaders.
Nobody had ever written anything in the paper of record the way Lewis did. The Vietnam War, he thundered, was “a crime against humanity,” causing “the most terrible destruction in the history of man.” He continued to speak, over the coming decades, as perhaps the most prominent of establishment voices for the antiwar, human rights and civil rights movements. Indeed, he lit up his biweekly corner of the Times op-ed page with the kind of political passion that is typically roped off in Washington at marches and rallies.
In addition to his unforgettable columns on Vietnam, Lewis proved a lonely and prophetic voice on behalf of the Palestinians, who were routinely treated as either terrorists or backward-looking Bedouins in the US media. For this he found himself under fire not only from the likes of The New Republic’s Martin Peretz, who Lewis thought was “obsessed” with him, but also from Noam Chomsky, because Lewis—always the unapologetic liberal—refused to recognize what Chomsky believed were the evil intentions that lay behind America’s nefarious activities.
Reading Lewis’s scholarly but passionate prose twice weekly in high school and college during the late 1970s and early ’80s helped inspire thoughts of my own future career. I never got to know him well, but I spent a long afternoon with him in late 1989 while researching my history of punditry, first published in 1992. We spent hours examining the trade-off he’d made by abjuring the insider influence generally accorded a Times columnist in exchange for the ability to speak in the language of simple fairness and morality. Lewis said he could not judge the degree to which his work had any influence and had given up trying. He explained that he had recently written a column on events in the Palestinian village of Beit Sahour, which had been under siege by Israeli occupation forces, and another about a human rights case in the West Bank in which he believed someone was being unfairly accused. After the first column, the Israelis lifted the siege. After the second, “they sentenced the guy to a year without even a trial. Did I have anything to do with that unhappy result? I certainly hope not. Did I have anything to do with the siege of Beit Sahour being lifted? I doubt it.”
As it happened, we were meeting the morning after it was discovered that six Jesuit priests and two others had been murdered in El Salvador by military officers trained and funded by our own government. Nobody in the mainstream media wrote more about the case than Lewis, or with greater clarity or passion. “We have created the system that makes that possible,” he explained in his matter-of-fact manner. “I don’t know what clear policy should be; I just have a general skepticism about the utility of American military force in these places.”
But as ugly as the US role in that crime may have been, it never shook Lewis’s instinctive patriotism or his belief in his fellow citizens’ essential decency. Lewis laughed when I told him, toward the end of the afternoon, that I thought him to be the most radical voice in the American mainstream. “It’s absolutely hilarious to me,” he said. “I mean, I’m a pro-capitalist, middle-of-the-road, tepid centrist. Is it ‘left’ to insist that presidents and CIA directors adhere to the law? I don’t think so. I think it’s American.”
Anthony Lewis wrote for The Nation in 2005 on “The Torture Administration.”