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Anthony Lewis, 1927–2013 | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Anthony Lewis, 1927–2013


Anthony Lewis reading the news of his Pulitzer Prize in 1963. (AP Photo/File.)

I’ve just learned the former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis died this morning at the age of 85. Among the ornaments to his career were two Pulitzer Prizes and two celebrated books on constitutional law. One, Gideon’s Trumpet, was about the Supreme Court case that established indigent criminal defendants’ right to an attorney, the other, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment, concerned the decision that made it difficult for targets to harass journalists by suing for libel. The Times itself focuses on how he revolutionized coverage of the Supreme Court. I’ll let others talk about that. Me, I’ll focus on a product of the kind of work I do as a historian of the 1960s and ’70s. In my research, I endeavor to assemble massive piles of the kind of arguments ordinary Americans might encounter about current events in the course of a day, the better to reconstruct how public opinion is formed and deformed. As such, it’s pretty easy for me to put together a fairly representative sample of what the most prominent media voices were saying during those years. That’s what I’ve just done now. And what I’ve found is a stunning record of Anthony Lewis’s consistent astringent vision and moral courage when it came to executive power and the national security state—a willingness ещ record the ugliest things the American state was up to, and to unflinchingly interpret them not as the exceptions of a nation that is fundamentally innocent but as part of a pattern of power-drunk arrogance. Think of Noam Chomsky on the op-ed page, several times a week.

I read him reporting, after visiting North Vietnam during Richard Nixon’s relentless bombing of the country, about American planes bombing hospitals despite the obvious red crosses painted on their roofs. He visited the hospitals; he wrote, decimating American moral arrogance and the bombing campaign’s entire raison d’être—intimidating the Communists into surrender—“It is impossible for this visitor to detect any atmosphere of fear.” In a letter to fellow columnist Stewart Alsop (quoted in this book) he described his motives for reporting uncomfortable stuff with the bark off: “I happen to believe in the sanity of our country, and the last chance to save it from the eternal damnation that the Nazis earned Germany…. If you cannot see that the mass bombing of one of the most densely populated areas on the face of the earth is a crime, then nothing can save us and we shall deserve the reputation we have earned.”

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He detected in Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre firing of the special prosecutor investigating him “the smell of an attempted coup d’etat.” Two weeks after the fall of Saigon, he excoriated the parochialism of the correspondents his profession had begun sending to Vietnam a decade earlier, baffled “that the Vietnamese are not American in outlook and never would be,” who “almost all accepted the official view of the war” which “think[s] of options only in terms of their effects on the country involved.” Two months later, in a piece called “Lying in State,” he recited polling that the percentage of people who distrusted the government had risen from 22 to 62 percent in ten years. Such observations were common in those dark days. What made Lewis’s different was the forcefulness of his interpretation: that people didn’t trust government because its “officials who are caught out in crude deceptiosn so seldom pay any penalty.” He went on to sear the page with stories about former CIA director Richard Helms baldly telling one Senator that the CIA never tried to overthrow the government of Chile when the CIA had actually spent $5 million to overthrow the government of Chile, and another that there had been no CIA connection to Watergate burglars Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt after 1970 even though the CIA had supplied them their burglary equipment.

And he wrote, when America had waited hardly six months before beginning its next ill-advised (not-so-)secret foreign intervention, in the form of CIA support for a faction fighting for control of the African nation of Angola, that “what the world sees as self-inflicted wounds may look to the authors as a way of electing Gerald F. Ford and keeping Henry Kissinger in office.” He was airing his suspicions that the White House had let a secret mission leak intentionally to give them a political foundation to fight Congress’s intent to increase constitutional accountability of the security state, “painting themselves as patriots.” He concluded, “What is needed, and painfully absent now, is a strong voice in Congress to contest that definition of patriotism.”

He loved that word, “patriotism.” He loved the concept. “Nothing should make us forget that moment of shared wonder and love of country,” he wrote on the first anniversary of the civic process that led to Nixon’s resignation—emphasis added. He was, in fact, one of the articulate and eloquent defenders of a new definition of patriotism that insisting that revealing uncomfortable truths, of criticizing one’s country, of holding leaders accountable for their sins, was a higher form of loving one’s country. If you agree, and I suspect most of you do, mourn Anthony Lewis.

Will recent election wins and ongoing demographic shifts usher in a new liberal era? Not so fast, Rick Perlstein writes.

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