Former New York Times Columnist Anthony Lewis Dead At 85

Anthony Lewis, a liberal whose writing appears on The New York Times Op-Ed page for years, has died:

Anthony Lewis, a former New York Times reporter and columnist whose work won two Pulitzer Prizes and transformed American legal journalism, died on Monday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 85.

The cause was complications of renal and heart failure, said his wife, Margaret H. Marshall, a retired chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Mr. Lewis brought passionate engagement to his two great themes: justice and the role of the press in a democracy. His column, called “At Home Abroad” or “Abroad at Home” depending on where he was writing from, appeared on the Op-Ed page of The Times from 1969 to 2001. His voice was liberal, learned, conversational and direct.

As a reporter, Mr. Lewis brought an entirely new approach to coverage of the Supreme Court, for which he won his second Pulitzer, in 1963.

“He brought context to the law,” said Ronald K. L. Collins, a scholar at the University of Washington who compiled a bibliography of Mr. Lewis’s work. “He had an incredible talent in making the law not only intelligible but also in making it compelling.”

Mr. Lewis’s thorough knowledge of the court’s work allowed him to write authoritatively and accessibly about difficult points.

“He’s as clear a writer as I think I know,” said Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of The Times. “There’s a kind of lucidity and directness to his prose. You learned an awful lot of law just from reading Tony Lewis’s accounts of opinions.”

Mr. Lewis wrote several books, two of them classic accounts of landmark decisions of the Warren Court, which he revered. Chief Justice Earl Warren led the Supreme Court from 1953 to 1969, corresponding almost precisely with Mr. Lewis’s years in Washington.

One of those books, “Gideon’s Trumpet,” concerned Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 decision that guaranteed lawyers to poor defendants charged with serious crimes. It has never been out of print since it was published in 1964.

“There must have been tens of thousands of college students who got it as a graduation gift before going off to law school,” said Yale Kamisar, an authority on criminal procedure who has taught at the University of Michigan and the University of San Diego.

The second book on a Warren Court decision, “Make No Law” in 1991, was about New York Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 decision that revolutionized American libel law.

Mr. Collins said Mr. Lewis’s coverage had helped explain and expand the court’s impact.

“You cannot talk about the legacy of the Warren Court and not talk about Tony Lewis,” Mr. Collins said. “He was just part and parcel of it. He was part of ushering in that constitutional revolution in civil rights and civil liberties from Brown v. Board of Education to Miranda v. Arizona.”

Joseph Anthony Lewis was born in New York City on March 27, 1927. He attended Horace Mann School in the Bronx and graduated from Harvard College in 1948. He joined The Times as an editor in what was then the paper’s Sunday department, but he left after four years to work on Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential campaign. After that he was hired by The Washington Daily News, a lively afternoon tabloid, and won his first Pulitzer there, in 1955, when he was 28.

The prize was for a series of articles on Abraham Chasanow, a Navy employee unjustly accused of being a security risk. The Navy eventually cleared and reinstated Mr. Chasanow, who credited Mr. Lewis’s work for his vindication.

Mr. Lewis returned to The Times that year, hired by James B. Reston, the Washington bureau chief, to cover the Justice Department and the Supreme Court. Mr. Reston soon sent him off to Harvard Law School on a Nieman fellowship in 1956 and 1957 to study law “with special reference to the Supreme Court,” The Times reported.

Mr. Lewis’s coverage of the court impressed Justice Felix Frankfurter, who called Mr. Reston. “I can’t believe what this young man achieved,” Justice Frankfurter said, as Mr. Reston recalled in his memoir, “Deadline.” “There are not two justices of this court who have such a grasp of these cases.”

The 1963 Pulitzer citation singled out Mr. Lewis’s coverage of Baker v. Carr, in which the Supreme Court opened legislative districting to oversight by the federal courts. Mr. Lewis did more than cover the decision; an article on legislative apportionment that he had written for The Harvard Law Review was cited in the decision at Footnote 27.

Bringing independent intellectual scrutiny to news coverage was an innovation often associated with Mr. Reston, who was known as Scotty. And Mr. Reston was protective of his protégés.

“Scotty ran interference” for Mr. Lewis’s “analytical reporting, moving away from sterile news agency ‘objectivity,’ ” said Max Frankel, a former executive editor of The Times.

Mr. Lewis cut a striking figure in Washington. He was “cool, lean, well-scrubbed looking, intense and brilliant,” Gay Talese wrote in “The Kingdom and the Power,” his 1969 history of The Times. “Lewis seemed tightly contained at all times, incredibly controlled, his orderly mind concentrating on only those things that were relevant now, at this second.”

“Only those who knew him well,” Mr. Talese added, “or with whom he was sufficiently impressed and thus responsive, sensed the interesting man beneath — the connoisseur of opera, the serious man married to a tall, blithe student of modern dance, the superb mimic of W. C. Fields, the charming dinner guest.”

Mr. Lewis moved easily among the powerful. “Tony Lewis, besides brilliantly covering the Supreme Court, became too conspicuously a member of Robert Kennedy’s social circle,” Mr. Frankel wrote in his memoir, “The Times of My Life and My Life With The Times.” “It was tough to keep your balance when you were expected simultaneously to get the inside scoop and to remain a disinterested witness of events.”

Mr. Lewis wrote “Gideon’s Trumpet” in large part during a four-month newspaper strike. The book told the story of Clarence Earl Gideon, a Florida drifter accused of breaking into a poolroom who was tried and convicted without a lawyer, and it sought to place the decision his case gave rise to in a larger context.

“Just as the Gideon case was part of the movement of the law on the right to counsel, and that in turn was but one aspect of the fundamental change taking place in the constitutional doctrine of fair criminal procedure, so the criminal law trend was part of a larger picture,” Mr. Lewis wrote. “In many other areas the Supreme Court in the last generation has enlarged the dimensions of individual liberty.”

I often disagreed with Lewis but his writing, and his analysis of legal issues, was outstanding.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Obituaries, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. rudderpedals says:

    I used to read Mr. Lewis’s regular articles on the train into work in the late 70s. Here is an interesting book review he wrote in 2005 on the Pentagon Papers, still relevant today