Anthony Lewis, the longtime New York Times columnist who died Monday at age 85, had the dream newspaperman’s career. As a reporter in the Times Washington bureau, he more or less invented Supreme Court coverage, which previously had been mostly perfunctory and ignorant. Then, in a great stroke of good luck, he got screwed out of the job of trying to run the hornet’s nest that was the Washington bureau (an episode recounted at a length that will satisfy anyone’s need for detail in Gay Talese’s book about the Times, The Kingdom and the Power). As a consolation prize, he was sent to London where, as bureau chief, he operated more like an ambassador. Then he got a column, first in London (“At Home Abroad”) and then in Boston (“Abroad at Home”). This was back when being a Times columnist was not unlike being a Supreme Court justice in terms of prestige, tenure, exclusivity and supporting infrastructure (clerks, research assistants, secretaries, and so on).
Lewis’s New York Times obituary, on page one in Tuesday’s paper, was way too prominent and way too long by any objective standard, but a perfectly appropriate self-indulgence by the paper where he worked for half a century.
In his heyday, Lewis was close to a First Amendment absolutist, who once said that if the Times ballet critic saw a murder committed in Times Square on her way to the subway after work, the First Amendment gave her the right, as a journalist, to refuse to testify about it. According to his obituary, he came to moderate his views and warned against reporters expecting special status under the Constitution.
The Times obit emphasized Lewis’s commitment to civil liberties, and his lucid analysis of the law in general. There was not a mention of what I, at least, remember him best for: his relentless opposition to the Vietnam War. Opposition to the war was not that big a deal. By the late 1960s, there were plenty of people writing against the war, and by the mid-1970s a majority of Americans had turned against it. But Anthony Lewis was the only journalist at the center of the establishment who wrote about it at what seemed to me and my college chums to be a sufficient level of rage and disdain. Not flashy Hunter-Thompson-style rage, but calm and unrelenting contempt. You read him twice a week to top up on fury. (And pro-war types read him for the same reason, though their fury was directed at Lewis himself and not the administration.) And then, when the war finally ended, he wrote an annual column commemorating the final United States bombing of Hanoi, whose only purpose was to convince the South Vietnamese government that the U.S. would enforce any peace agreement, which we didn’t.
The nearest equivalent to Anthony Lewis these days would be New York Times columnist (among other things) Paul Krugman. You don’t have to always agree with him to admire his relentlessness.
And you don’t have to disagree with him to find his hauteur annoying. This was true of Lewis as it is of Krugman. And this journal provides probably the best example. Lewis wrote occasionally for The New Republic over the years, but in recent years he was more often the target of barbs. In January 1980, for example, Mr. Lewis was accused in our pages of adopting “an instructional tone.” This is fair and accurate—quite a good description, in fact, of his characteristic style. But the specific allegation was that in the Middle East, “Peace can come, Lewis has argued, only through Israel’s negotiations with the PLO for a Palestinian state on the West Bank.” Today, this is roughly the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So that one goes to Tony Lewis.