Journalist Lewis Chronicles Changing Times in The Times
CLASS OF 1948
He spends his free time tending his tomato garden on Martha's Vineyard. In this era of e-mail, he bangs out his column on a typewriter. His friends praise his delicious plum jelly.
But don't mistake J. Anthony Lewis '48 for old-fashioned or out-of-touch. For half a century, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times has been an innovator in his field, a leader among journalists and politicians alike. He remains an unabashed liberal at a time when most in public life shun the label.
"He has a passion for his issues that has been unabated for 30 years," says Linda J. Greenhouse '68, a former Crimson editor and a Times reporter who today covers the Supreme Court beat that Lewis helped originate.
Lewis' commitment to reporting began at Harvard, where he served as managing editor of The Crimson in 1947. The newspaper quickly occupied much of his time.
"If you look at his grades as an undergraduate, they were probably pretty lousy because he spent all his time at The Crimson," recalls Stanley Karnow '45, an author and journalist who became a lifelong friend of Lewis' while serving on the paper.
Working on The Crimson helped shape his life's goals, Lewis says.
"It made it clear to me that what I wanted to do with my life was be a newspaperman," he says.
Lewis enjoyed the social aspect of the newspaper as much as the journalism.
"The most fun I had was putting out a fake issue of the Daily Dartmouth" before a crucial football game, he says.
"We had a page-one editorial denouncing this dastardly scheme to harm the Dartmouth football team," Lewis remembers with a laugh.
During the summer, Lewis worked as a copy-boy at the Times, and after graduation he took a full-time job there. Except for a brief stint at the Washington Daily News from 1952 to 1955, where he distinguished himself reporting on the Navy's Loyalty Security Program, Lewis has worked for the Times all his life.
But his time at the Daily News was significant despite its brevity. His coverage of the loyalty program helped reinstate a sailor accused of treason and won him his first Pulitzer.
"Covering the Red Scare period was an important moment in my life," Lewis says. "It was a rare example of a newspaper article doing good."
In 1956, he returned to Harvard for two years as a Nieman Fellow. Lewis studied and taught classes at the Harvard Law School (HLS).
"He could have been an excellent lawyer," says James Vorenberg '49, former dean of the law school and a friend of Lewis.' "He is an excellent lawyer, without all the training."
Lewis had an impact on his fellow students while at the law school. Karnow remembers sitting next to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a dinner.
"She turned to me and said, `Tony Lewis is my hero,"' Karnow recalls. Ginsburg took a class of Lewis' while at HLS.
After returning to the Times, Lewis was assigned to cover the Supreme Court, where his thoroughness and persistence paid off in another Pulitzer.
"Nobody does more homework," Greenhouse says. "He created the modern Supreme Court beat as an entity...He just owned the subject by knowing everything about the Court."
Lewis' experience proved invaluable in writing his classic book Gideon's Trumpet, a 1964 bestseller about the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision that established a constitutional right to legal counsel in criminal cases.
In 1969, Lewis began writing a Times column called "At Home Abroad" while working as the paper's London bureau chief. Upon returning to the U.S., the column was retitled "Abroad at Home." He has written it continuously for more than 25 years.
The column's title alludes to Lewis' impressive travel pedigree: Over the course of his career he has worked extensively in Europe, Russia, China, India, Africa, the Middle East and has reported from every U.S. state but Alaska.
His travels have left him pessimistic about the state of foreign affairs.
"The world is certainly coming closer together, but the ability of people to find reasons to hate each other has increased," Lewis says. "It's the most deplorable and unexpected phenomenon."
Of all the conflicts he has seen, Lewis remains most vehement about Vietnam. He says he is appalled by "the complete wrongness of what we did, the savagery and pointlessness of the American war effort."
Throughout the '60s and '70s, Lewis excoriated the war effort in columns and articles and was repeatedly the target of hate mail, he says.
His columns continue to be controversial. In recent months he has become a relentless critic of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Opponents have denounced his unwavering loyalty to President Clinton.
Lewis is married to Margaret H. Marshall, a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The couple divide their time between Cambridge and Martha's Vineyard.
"We're too busy," he says. "My wife has lots of legal dinners and I travel, so we don't spend as much time together as we'd like."
During his all-too-rare free time, Lewis treasures more relaxed past-times: raising vegetables on the Vineyard, listening to music and writing letters. He doesn't even own a computer, Greenhouse says.
"For all I know, he still uses a shaving brush," Karnow says.
However, that doesn't mean he's behind the times. "He's not old-fashioned. "He's slow to give up things that've worked well for him," Vorenberg explains.
After 50 years, peers regard Lewis as one who has created his own tradition in journalism, and a respected reporter who continues to advocate his politics forcefully but gracefully. His work, which spans law and politics, the nation and the world, shows no sign of losing its impact or its range.
"He's been a law professor and he's an expert on the First Amendment," Greenhouse says. "He's transcended the limits of journalism."