Anthony Lewis

A writer who changed our understanding of the law, of journalism's possibilities, and of civic life

LewisAnthony.jpgAs I've written repeatedly in this space, journalism is fleeting, and so too is the renown and influence of nearly all its practitioners. Thus it is possible that, even though Anthony Lewis was a powerful twice-weekly presence on the New York Times's op-ed page for more than 30 years, many of today's readers may not recognize his name or, on the occasion of his death at age 85, fully appreciate what he brought to journalism and public life. (CPJ photo.) He deserves to be remembered.

I first learned about and followed Tony Lewis's work when I was a college student, during the late Vietnam War years, when through his NYT column he was a leading critic of the LBJ and Nixon approaches to the war. Then I learned about his book Gideon's Trumpet, which (as Andrew Cohen has very eloquently explained) had a profound effect on prevailing understanding of the law itself, of the Supreme Court's role in interpreting the law, and on the potential of truly literary journalism to improve the law and civic life more generally.

Over the years I came to understand a part of his influence that most of the public wouldn't have known about but that is being noted in many of the appreciations of him, including Andrew Cohen's. Tony Lewis was a remarkably generous, patient, and good-humored mentor and sponsor to young people trying to make their way across the often-discouraging and always-uncertain terrains of journalism and the law. I benefited from his taking time to offer counsel at several tricky times when I was in my 20s -- and he didn't have any particular reason to be helpful to me. I have heard enough similar stories to believe that he just assumed he should make time for young people, and be of use. All this was at a period in his own life and eminence when he could instead easily have considered himself too busy, too important, or too intent on extending his own influence to make space for other people.

David Halberstam was a very different sort of person, writer about the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras, and journalistic standard-setter from Lewis. But on the news of his death in a car crash six years ago, I was struck by a similar point: how often he had been willing to go out of his way to listen to, take under his wing, and help people from the next generation. J. Anthony Lukas, author of the monumental Common Ground and many other works (and a contemporary, friend, and rival of Halberstam's), lived the same message. You would never have described any of these people as "easy-going" or "uncomplicated," but they made time for others. Now these three writers are gone, and the newspaper journalism through which they originally made their names is, like all journalism, perishable. Each of them wrote books that may last; but I think an even more important legacy may be their example of making time to help and encourage.