March 27, 2013

For Anthony Lewis, with love and thanks

For Anthony Lewis, with love and thanks

The best fun of being president of the US, I often thought, would be appointing Anthony Lewis to the Supreme Court. He was a non-lawyer with a persuasive understanding of the gift and genius of the Constitution. He had a historian’s grasp on how the law evolved. Justice Frankfurter said Tony knew the cases before the Court better than most of the sitting judges. And he could unfold the issues in lucid prose that grabbed me as a teen-age reader of the New York Times. It turns out now that lots of people, like my pal Rick Hertzberg, had that fantasy – of putting Tony Lewis on the Court, as a sort of teaching judge, a people’s man with law and language. Here’s what he stood for and loved to recite – in the Lydons’ living room – for example: Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in a free-speech case from World War I time, the Abrams case. The best test of truth, Holmes bellowed, is “free trade in ideas.”

“…That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment… While that experiment is part of our system I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in dissent in Abrams vs. United States (1919), quoted in Anthony Lewis’ Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment, page 78.

Reading that stuff, as Tony liked to say, you felt the hair rise at the back of your neck. This was his meat: law, experiment, the rights of embattled South Africans, Palestinians and American outcasts, free expression, dissent, room for ideas we hate, and thundering prose. And of course Tony found he could thunder on his own, too.

My favorite Tony Lewis columns – oddly unmentioned in the Times obit – might have been his answer to the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, the Nixon-Kissinger “terror bombing” of Hanoi – with no measurable purpose or benefit. Peace was at hand, they had said, the war all but over, but American B-52s poured it on: 2000 strikes over 11 days. “An episode that will live in infamy,” Tony Lewis wrote. And lest we forget he kept rewriting that column every Christmas for a decade. The lessons for Americans were still: “Beware obsession. Beware secrecy. Beware concentrated power. Beware men untouched by concern for the moral consequences of their acts.”

To my taste, Tony Lewis leaves the high-water mark in consequential newspaper work in our time – before snark and life-style and propaganda and the I-I-I voice in political columns came to seem standard. Chris Hedges wrote the other day that TV as a news medium began to die when MSNBC dismissed Phil Donahue ten years ago for his reservations about the war in Iraq. I would say newspapers started their descent to the grave right about the same time, when the Times sent Tony Lewis into retirement and retained William Safire who thought the war was a great idea. “Wait and see,” Safire ended a column. I wrote to him later: “Bill, we waited, and we saw.”

Tony Lewis was my standard of excellence, though the “narcissism of small differences” kicked in, too. I thought Tony was unfair to Ralph Nader. He knew the quality of Nader’s citizenship since their law school days in the 50s, but then Tony led the liberal chorus against Nader in that very stilted and stifling Bush-Gore campaign of 2000. I thought Ralph would have ventilated it, maybe brought Al Gore out of his own infamous lock-box, maybe scratched the veneer off George Bush. I thought it was unlike Tony to be narrowing the field and the conversation that was stuck in a deep rut, going nowhere. So we disagreed, and made a radio program around the argument with both Tony Lewis and Ralph Nader. Tony indulged his friends, like me, in all manner of differences. But then I realized years ago: inside my own head the relationship went further, maybe deeper. I found myself arguing all alone over small points of politics or taste with the mind of Tony Lewis. The oddest part was that as I sparred with my internal Tony, he often won the argument – with his patience, forbearance, and long view.

Over many years Tony was inexplicably generous to me as broadcast host. He’d begun with the granddaddy of public broadcast news, Louis M. Lyons on WGBH. He was an almost-regular on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and then on my Ten O’Clock News on WGBH-TV, where he could make a 4-minute interview sing – on anything. One night it was his idol Fred Astaire, and suddenly Tony broke into song with one of the Astaire classics — I think it was “A Foggy Day.” Margie Marshall, Tony’s new wife, said she would kill me, or him, if I ever let him sing again on TV, but he might have been happy to defy us. There was more to Tony than law and politics. He wrote and talked wonderfully about his suit salesman in Filene’s Basement; about Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; about a fine revival of “Porgy and Bess;” about Boston’s Mayor Ray Flynn, who rated better than Ed Koch of New York, Tony judged. I loved to hear him on newspaper guys – on his sponsor, the incomparable team-builder James Reston; on the great independents and adventurers Harrison Salisbury, I. F. Stone and Sy Hersh; on the nonpareil columnist, the genius among the great craftsmen of the Times, Russell Baker.

I saw Tony at home a month ago, not knowing the end was so close. His first words: “God, I miss Tom Winship at the Globe.” The last were: “Sure, let’s record our conversation the next time.” What we talked about most that February afternoon were song lyrics. He had a great book on the top of his pile: Reading Lyrics, compiled by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. Tony knew the words of Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, Tom Lehrer, P. G. Wodehouse and Company the way he knew the law. And he worshipped above all, I think, Frank Loesser for the words and music of Guys and Dolls: “I Got the Horse Right Here” and Adelaide’s song: “A person can develop a cold,” which Tony loved to sing. The next time, I was going to bring him the Ray Charles / Betty Carter version of another Frank Loesser classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Tony leaves us, I’d say, a memorable model for the best and broadest idea of a liberal at work. It wasn’t about dogma, much less radicalism. It was temperament as much as politics. It was about a modest optimism, a belief that institutions, even societies, could work on their flaws and get better. He was the human embodiment of the Warren Court, in that sense. He made a pair with his friend Justice William Brennan, who stood also for civility, compromise, persistence on an upward course. They stood for that era of reform in civil rights, in one-man-one-vote political representation, in the protection of defendants’ rights and the expansion of free speech and expression. Tony goaded the country with columns and landmark books on those central subjects, and by gum, the country got better. It can sound almost quaint, but he knew for certain that there were remedies for real ills in patient, hard-working devotion to our ideals in the Constitution and the law. So he never let up, and he never despaired.

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  • The Parrot

    RIP Tony Lewis. His journalism was part of my reading diet in my formative years (hopefully, not all behind me?). I consider him a national treasure.

    As for OW Holmes and “the free trade of ideas”: I find it disagreeable to entertain ideas that are wrapped in ‘common sense’ logic or flags and sacred texts, offering nothin’ more than fangs and claws, or tightening the grip on the levers of power for but a few. So of course, how can I not give them accommodation and hospitality before a summary dismissal. CPAC is the most recent stroll I took with my shadow. Me and my shadow will keep f*cking that chicken…

    Let us take note of the windfall for the advocates of the war in Iraq 2.0. Chris has done many conversations on this matter. An experiment where the free trade of words and ideas (largely fear and anxiety based) were used to send folks to bring death, torture, and property destruction to maintain access to oil spigots that keep the beast hummin’ along. It is yet another stain upon the American footprint (as rotten as Vietnam in my estimation; a journalism corps that largely bailed out on honesty for the status of being embedded … with some exceptions … wikileaks? blogs? radio open source? democracy now?) Obviously, the war on terror and its off-spring “do not imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law.” I’ll sleep better now.

    “The free trade of ideas” is a epoch tick that opens the doors to a universe of empty-headed, and potentially dangerous, false equivalencies that swirl around the ‘merican media landscape as ‘fair-and-balance’, sans fairness act (i.e. accountability and verification) And yet, I see no reasonable alternative to what Holmes is advocating. OW Holmes, a wounded civil war veteran, presumably understood that not all experiments are contained within the laboratory of democracy. They sometimes get loosed upon the world and blind us to our inner Moloch run amok. Let us not delude ourselves: speech and ideas can and do kill, injure, and destroy all manner things. Not all trade and speech, free or otherwise, is bloodless.

    Some ideas and trade seem to require us to absorb immeasurable costs in the hopes of achieving what is probably the most difficult thing in the imperative of human experience: moving the human collective psyche 1 centimeter towards liberation and improvement of our condition in how we decided to deal with each other. It’s often easier to move a mile than a centimeter. Democracy, the human condition, moves in small increments, and the moves have real costs and ask for real sacrifice. The bill is usually sent to the least powerful, least connected, least educated, and the poorest among us to pay.

  • Ley Westcott

    I miss him, and recall a colloquy on “The Connection” with you and others, Chris, about 12 or so years ago. Among the subjects discussed was that of ‘Progress’. Is there such a thing; did he believe in it; how do we define it? Tony said he used to believe in it but a life’s experience persuaded him otherwise. Sure, there is the march of technology, and improved understanding of applied science, etc. But fundamental human nature remains fundamental. At least for the scale of time in which we are immersed — past, present and foreseeable future. The old French aphorism comes to mind: “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” But we must carry on, for we cannot in good conscience do otherwise. I will miss very much Tony’s clear and powerful eloquence. His humanity, integrity, informed and logical reason. I believe it was Justice Holmes who said: ‘Law without Values is meaningless’. That is also my understanding of Tony’s raison d’etre, deeply fair and humane individual that I understood him to be. Tony has left us, but his trumpet’s clarion call echoes in the hearts and minds of those who knew and remember him, his example. Farewell, Tony. He would have made a superb justice.

  • Sean McElroy

    The day I met Tony Lewis, my wife and I had landed some tickets to the Boston Symphony. We wandered into the reception area, grabbed a couple of glasses of wine and started to shuffle around looking for a place to sit. There was an elderly man sitting by himself. I asked if there was anyone sitting with him. He said, “no, I’m waiting for my wife.” “Well in that case, maybe we can help.” I had the simple-minded thought in my head: here is some poor old guy who has lost track of his wife. We introduced ourselves. “So Tony, how will we know when we’ve seen your wife?” Tony didn’t miss a beat, “She’ll be the most beautiful woman in the room.” I immediately felt an intimate connection with this man. I mean, what are the odds? Two people, strangers, meeting by chance, both there with the most beautiful women in the room?

    After a bit of small talk where Tony confessed to having retired as a writer, his wife came by our table. She introduced herself, Margaret Marshall, “I work in the appellate court.” I confess my thoughts were less than optimistic. Margaret and Tony went back in forth in that way couples do, Margaret helped to groom Tony’s hair a bit, a touch of intimacy which I found compelling but Tony seemed a bit annoyed. Tony bought her a glass of wine. Well at least the couple was united even if it must have been an effort for Margaret to break away from the tedium of obligations at some courtly bureaucracy. Still we were fast friends. We talked about work, kids, the weather, music. I was ready to start chatting about my latest soup recipe when Tony gave me a quick aside, “My wife won’t say this, but she is the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.”

    A clever, intelligent man might have been taken aback but again, I can only relate that there was a vague memory of someone called Marshall, no, not the ‘Marbury v. Madison’ Marshall, but someone like that. Anyway, the chatter went on, the lights dimmed a couple of times and it was time to take our seats.

    All I can say is that the BSO performance did not compel the obligatory reports of rapture from me that ordinarily my patient wife is expected to endure. Having spent the entire evening wracking my brain about who this Margaret Marshall person might be, there was little else that fixed in my memory. The next day, with the help of the internet, we figured it out. We had just spent an evening with a Chief Justice, two time Pulitzer Prize winner and a world-class symphony orchestra – only in Boston.

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  • Robert Zucchi

    With eloquence and personal reminiscence, Chris Lydon and the commenters memorialize a man I had heretofore known only by reputation. While intending no disrespect to his formal eulogists, I wonder how there can be more stirringly appreciative tributes to Anthony Lewis than what appears here. Evidently for Mr. Lewis, “liberal democracy” wasn’t poli-sci jargon, but the only form of democratic governance in which popular sovereignty was remotely achievable. I’ve reread these postings, drawn by the masterful evocation of Lewis’s works and credo in them, and I’m in awe of a man who could inspire such respect and affection in people who are themselves so accomplished.

  • Potter

    We missed him the minute he left the New York Times, infuriating that they kept the infuriating Safire!. What a big hole he left! I have wondered since and many times where he Lewis was when we needed him sorely. It was his moral compass. It was his knowledge of history and profound understanding of who we aim to be. His arguments could and would move your mind, even stir it. I have not felt a spark of patriotism since, frankly. His genius was, it seemed, planted, rooted firmly.

    We did see him every now and then on the PBS news hour, but hardly enough and of course opposed.

    I continue to disagree with you Chris about Ralph Nader- a good man of course- but he did quite enough in that election of 2000 to upset things and help to end us up where we are today, and, note, with both Bush and Nader hiding out.

    Thank you for this memoir and tribute, for marking this moment and sharing the loss of a friend, for rounding out the obits in the Times and making the loss feel even more profound.

    It always seems so that when person leaves us for good we really know, or feel best the totality of what is lost.

  • Potter

    Sean McElroy – what a wonderful story about Tony Lewis’s lack of self-importance .. We were just at the BSO last night and know what you mean: couples share a table for four sipping wine (or dreadful espresso) while waiting for the concert. Lucky you!

    • Sean McElroy

      @Potter: To paraphrase Le Carre, “God bless you and all who sail in you!”

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  • I followed Anthony Lewis from the UK. Thank goodness that the internet allows such things.