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.”