Anthony Lewis, the former New York Times reporter and columnist who died Monday at the age of 86, shaped the American conscience on a broad range of issues, from civil liberties and civil rights to war and diplomacy, for almost 50 years. During his long career Lewis won numerous awards and published several important books. Unlike many men of his generation who rose to high positions in journalism, he was a charming and thoughtful man who could listen as intently as he talked.
In our era of declining daily newspapers and fragmented, narrowly targeted media, not even a journalist as talented as Lewis could likely wield the kind of influence he once exerted. More than any other reporter, he fostered public understanding of the judicial system, particularly the Supreme Court — and of major court decisions during the past half-century that protect individual rights. He helped the country to break with musty orthodoxies and rigid prejudices that had long prevented the fulfillment of liberty for all Americans. He guided the nation’s conception of constitutional freedom and the rule of law.
Justly celebrated for those pioneering contributions, he deserves recognition for a different kind of courage too. Having risen through the most established institutions, from Horace Mann to Harvard to the Times, Lewis never hesitated to stake out positions that placed him outside the so-called mainstream, always well ahead of his peers. Indeed, he fearlessly contradicted the editorial judgments of the Times itself – knowing full well that such apostasies were not without peril.
Almost 40 years ago, Lewis dared to question the wisdom of the Times on a matter that the paper’s publisher and editors considered of vital importance to the future of New York City – the construction of a 300-acre landfill in the Hudson River with a submerged six-lane highway, all at a cost of roughly $6 billion. This was the Westway project, a wildly expensive and irresponsible dream of bankers, politicians, developers, construction unions – and the Times, which really ought to have known better.
Clashing repeatedly with the paper’s support of this mad project, Lewis repeatedly urged the city and state to trade in its federal funding for mass-transit money. (His fellow Times op-ed columnist, Sydney Schanberg, still believes that the editors sacked him for opposing Westway.) In this early confrontation between sound energy policy and absurd waste, he sided with the embattled and outspent environmentalists. Eventually a federal court vindicated Lewis’ sage advice when it forced the city to abandon Westway over its ruinous impact on marine life.
During the next editorial regime at the Times, Lewis defied a different brand of groupthink that had seized both the news and editorial pages. Rooted in the paper’s breathless coverage of Whitewater and other non-scandals, a virulent form of Clinton Derangement Syndrome had infected the paper’s investigative reporting staff, most of its columnists, its top editors, and its editorial board.
The vituperative tone and persistent bias in the paper’s coverage of both Bill and Hillary Clinton were appalling to Lewis, who didn’t hesitate to voice an alternative view that not only his immediate colleagues but almost the entire national press corps openly disdained. He didn’t much care, as he told me more than once, because he believed that the endless, fruitless, harassing investigations of the Clintons were wrong and damaging. In that instance, too, he was thoroughly vindicated.
Neither of those episodes nor others like them was noted in the affectionate and laudatory obituary published by the Times to mark his passing. Yet Lewis ought to be remembered as someone who honored its old slogan, “without fear or favor,” even when that commitment severely embarrassed and irritated his bosses.