As 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.