Anthony Lewis: Journalist who defended civil liberties and twice won the Pulitzer Prize

 

If some journalists embody a newspaper's soul, then Anthony Lewis surely did so for The New York Times for most of the second half of the 20th century. As a reporter he twice won the Pulitzer Prize, America's top press award, before becoming one of the country's leading liberal columnists, an indefatigable defender of free speech, civil liberties and life's underdogs.

Perhaps his greatest contribution however came earlier, during the decade he was the Times' Supreme Court correspondent, dissecting and explaining its rulings, and in the process transforming the way in which that arcane but hugely powerful and influential institution was covered.

Lewis did so with the lucidity, directness, and the mixture of coolness and intensity that were the hallmarks of his writing. His expertise and his understanding of the Court were all the more notable given his relative lack of formal legal training. "I was probably made to be a lawyer," he once said, "but it just didn't turn out that way."

The son of a textile executive and a mother who, he said, liked to dabble in playwriting, Lewis attended the private Horace Mann School in New York City, before going to Harvard, where he helped relaunch the student newspaper the Crimson after the Second World War and took an undergraduate degree in English in 1948.

He joined the Times that same year, working on its Sunday edition before leaving to work on the Democrat Adlai Stevenson's 1952 presidential campaign. After Stevenson's defeat, Lewis joined the long-defunct Washington Daily News as a general assignment reporter.

There he won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1955 at the age of 28, for his work on the case of Abraham Chasanow, an employee of the Navy Department, who had fallen victim to Joseph McCarthy's Communist witchhunts. Thanks in large measure to the reporting of Lewis, Chasanow was reinstated, as the Department admitted it had perpetrated a grave injustice.

That same year he rejoined the Times, hired by the paper's then Washington bureau chief James Reston to cover the Justice Department and the Supreme Court. Lewis did so with a brilliance that impressed his subjects themselves. "I can't believe what this young man achieved," Justice Felix Frankfurter told Reston at one point, "there are not two Justices of this Court who have such a grasp of these cases." In an ultimate compliment, Lewis was on occasion even cited in the Court's opinions.

Eight years after winning his first Pulitzer Prize, Lewis received his second, this time for his coverage of the Court, and in particular of the 1962 Baker v Carr case that upheld judicial oversight of the contentious issue of Congressional redistricting. But the case with which he is perhaps best associated involved a Florida drifter named Clarence Earl Gideon, and established the right of a penniless criminal defendant to a proper lawyer.

Taking advantage of a four-month newspaper strike, Lewis used the spare time to write an account of the Gideon case, Gideon's Trumpet. Since its publication in 1964, it has never been out of print, a staple read for any student considering a career in the law.

Another landmark 1960s case covered by Lewis was New York Times Co v Sullivan, which severely limited the instances in which public figures can sue for libel, requiring them henceforth to prove not just inaccuracy, but deliberate and reckless malice. In 1991, that produced another book, Make no Law: the Sullivan case and the First Amendment, that has also become a law school standard.

The book confirmed his standing as an authority on the First Amendment of the Constitution, enshrining the right to freedom of speech and the press. But he never believed that the provision gave journalists special protection, and exemption from any requirement to divulge their sources. This he contended, was a matter of honour, not a legal right.

By 1964, some of his superiors on the paper were concerned that Lewis had developed too close a relationship with Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney-General in charge of the Justice Department. The next year he became the Times' bureau chief in London, a post he held from 1965 to 1972, and in which he reported not only on British affairs, but also on the Vietnam War. His opposition earned from the then national security adviser, later Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, the comment that he [Lewis] "is always wrong."

From London, he began writing the twice-weekly column that would continue for more than 30 years until 2001, titled either "At Home Abroad",'or "Abroad at Home", depending where he was at the time, but unfailingly lucid, rational and committed to liberal causes. Later Lewis combined his writing with teaching courses on journalism and the law at Harvard and Columbia University.

After his first marriage ended in divorce, Lewis remarried the South-African born Margaret Marshall, who rose to be Chief Justice of Massachusetts and wrote the state court's ruling in 2003 that upheld same-sex marriage. Perhaps aptly, he died at the start of the very week in which the US Supreme Court, the institution Lewis knew so well, was hearing arguments in two cases that could legalise same-sex marriage throughout the country.

Rupert Cornwell

Joseph Anthony Lewis, journalist: born New York City 27 March 1927; married firstly Linda Rannells (marriage dissolved; one son, two daughters), secondly Margaret Marshall; died Cambridge, Massachusetts 25 March 2013.

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