Anthony Lewis, the law’s champion
My introduction to Anthony Lewis, who died Monday at 85, came late one afternoon in 1963 in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, where I was a microscopically junior editor and he was one in a towering cast of journalistic stars assembled by James Reston, the bureau chief.
It was decision day at the Supreme Court, and Tony handed me brief summaries of three or four articles he intended to write by the time his bus to suburban Virginia left at 6:30 p.m. And so, to my astonishment, he did — one big piece on the most important case; smaller ones on the others; each one crisp, learned and requiring almost nothing in the way of editorial improvement.
Amid the tributes to his contributions to our knowledge of the law, it is important to recall that Lewis, justly admired for his books on seminal legal cases, was at heart a daily journalist who knew that every time he sat at his typewriter he was writing for a broad audience, all within the relentless demands of daily newspapering.
He did this well and, to the casual observer, effortlessly. But behind his prodigious output as a Supreme Court reporter, London bureau chief and, for more than three decades, op-ed columnist, lay an enormous amount of disciplined hard work informed by this basic rule: To make major cases understandable and accessible to ordinary readers, he would first have to master their complexities.
Then, too, there was his profound appreciation of history, of the nation’s founders and the famous cases that shaped America’s constitutional course. And underlying it all was a deep reverence for the law itself and for the role of the courts in securing and protecting basic freedoms.
As he wrote with elegant simplicity in an op-ed article in February 2003, urging the courts to stand firm against the Bush administration’s detention policies, “We rely on the courts to enforce what the Constitution promises.”
I have no doubt that Lewis would have been deeply interested in this week’s historic arguments before the Supreme Court on the right to marry as a fundamental liberty. He may ultimately be remembered most for his work on big cases involving basic rights — the right to counsel in “Gideon’s Trumpet” and the First Amendment in “Make No Law.”
But my immediate thoughts are of the countless news articles and 30-plus years of thoughtful columns on the op-ed page. One by one, they informed an entire generation about the promise of the law.
Robert B. Semple Jr. writes for The New York Times.