NPR

Remembering Journalist Anthony Lewis

Anthony Lewis, former reporter and columnist for The New York Times, died Monday at the age of 85. NPR's Neal Conan remembers the Pulitzer Prize winner, and listens back to a conversation with Lewis about his career and the stories he covered, just after his retirement in 2002.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Former New York Times reporter and columnist Anthony Lewis died yesterday at the age of 85. Were he still alive, he'd likely be following the coverage of the Supreme Court this week with great interest. He's remembered for, among other things, reinventing coverage of the court, work that won him the second of this two Pulitzer Prizes back in 1963. We spoke with Anthony Lewis in 2002, just after he retired from The Times. And I started to ask him if he remembered the very first story he covered back in 1952.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ANTHONY LEWIS: I can't say I do, no. I - it was an afternoon tabloid. I used to come to work at 6:30. And the first thing we were asked to do was to look over stories from the morning papers, then the Washington Post and the Times-Herald; there were two morning papers then.

And I remember one event, though, and it tells you something about the life of a young journalist. The city editor, a wonderful man, Nick Blachard, handed me a clipping from either one of the morning papers that spoke about a young man at a military school committing suicide. And he said call his mother and find out what you can. I said, call his mother? Nick, come on. He said, do it. So I did it, and to my amazement, the mother wanted to talk to me, and talked and talked, and taught me something. People want to talk to journalists. It's hard to know exactly why, but they do.

CONAN: Well, a few years later you drew some more lessons in that regard when you worked on a story about a Navy employee who had been fired as a security risk.

LEWIS: That's right.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about it.

LEWIS: Well, Abe Chazinow was a most ordinary bourgeois middle-class citizen living in Greenbelt, Maryland, and he'd worked for the Navy for many years. And suddenly he was told that his security clearance was withdrawn. He wasn't told exactly why or who had charged him with some relation to communism or security risk or whatever. And he was fired without any real chance to defend himself, because you can't defend yourself against unknown charges by unknown people.

So I wrote about him. I went out and saw the family and came to know them. They had a wonderful lawyer, Joe Finelli. And eventually, because there was an assistant secretary of the Navy, James H. Smith, who had some guts, he took it back and gave Abe Chazinow back his job. So it was a rare victory for justice.

CONAN: And a Pulitzer Prize for you.

LEWIS: As it turned out.

CONAN: Yeah. Unknown charges, this might be a theme that sort of runs through your career. You've been writing about that lately too.

LEWIS: It is. It's amazing. You think some terrible thing is buried with a stake through its heart, and up it pops again, you know. The Justice Department, the Immigration Service, in both the previous administration and this one, has been trying to establish the right to deport people on the basis of charges that it never explains - secret evidence - so that the poor person who is a green card holder, a perfectly legal resident of the United States, is suddenly told we're going to throw you out and we won't tell you why. I thought it was outrageous when it was done to Abe Chazinow and others during the years of the Red Scare, and I think it's terrible now.

CONAN: Now, you made the transition from being a reporter, and we talked some about your early days, to being a columnist. What's the difference?

LEWIS: Hah. Well, it's a big difference. I think there's a tendency in people who cover a particular field and who become very familiar with it to have opinions.

It's inevitable. Human beings come to have opinions about things they understand or believe they understand. And they can be strong. I remember once, years ago, sitting in the press gallery of the United States Senate when some bills were there, and there was another reporter - I won't mention her name - who really wanted those bills to pass. And they were defeated. And when they were defeated, she burst into tears. And she had a view. She wasn't detached.

Well, when you get to be a columnist, you're entitled to express those opinions. In fact, when I rather suddenly was told by the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, that I was to be a columnist, I wrote to my colleague Russell Baker who was already doing a column, and said, help, how do you do it? He said, well, it's very simple. You have to have an opinion. And you can't hide behind informed sources said this or all that kind of thing. You have to say, I believe. And I think that's the difference.

CONAN: Now, did the reporting that you did influence what your opinions became - you were well-known as a staunch liberal - or did you start your reporting career with those opinions?

LEWIS: I'm not sure I can answer that question. I think I probably always - at least from the age of about 20, I was rather a conservative young person. But from about 20, I think I always cared about civil liberties and racial justice, civil rights and that kind of thing. And perhaps that led me to write about the case of Abe Chasanow that you mentioned earlier and write about the McCarthy phenomenon because those things seem to me to be - to need coverage. And that led James Reston of The New York Times to ask me if I'd like to cover the Supreme Court for The Times and the rest followed.

CONAN: That sort of power does not reside in most people. Is that something you have to use judiciously?

LEWIS: Well, I don't want to kid you. It isn't very often that a columnist writes a column that actually produces a change. You know, I suppose all columnists have to have, in the back of their mind, that they're going to change the world. Mostly, we don't, perhaps in an individual case. And some of those immigration cases were very satisfying to me because, actually, the people at the top of the immigration service, unlike some of the people farther down, were quite sensitive to criticism of that kind.

I mean, I - for example, one of the things that I treasure is a couple of people with whom I became friends in Alexandria, Louisiana, Red and Cynthia Thompson, because I helped to save their daughter-in-law, who also happen to come, from Germany from being deprived of the right to live with her husband, their son Baxter. And every Christmas, the Thompsons send me pecans because they have a pecan farm down there. Well, that makes you feel good, no doubt of it.

CONAN: Ronald is our next caller, and he joins us from St. Augustine.

RONALD: A question I wanted to raise has to do with the form of journalistic demagoguery, which Mr. Lewis, I think, has demonstrated in much of his writing. One particular case I recall very vividly, had to do with the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa. I was in the area at the time and have done research and writing on it, and I remember that he very clearly parroted the line taken by the ANC. And there are other major parties involved in this.

CONAN: The African National Congress.

RONALD: African National; Congress, that's right. And - I mean, he made the statement that it's important for a journalist to - or a columnist to express his views, his opinions. But, I mean, clearly, you can't be an authority on various subjects which were just taken up. So that means he has to rely on positions and information that he's provided. But he selectively seeks out the opinions or sought out the opinions of a particular point of view, and that's reflected in much of his writing.

CONAN: Anthony Lewis, you want to reply to that?

LEWIS: Absolutely. Ronald, I understand why you say what you do, but - because, of course, columnists particularly can pretend to become instant experts on lots of subjects. And that is a danger. I agree with you. But there are very few themes that I worked away at through those 32 years, and one of them was South Africa. I spent a lot of time in South Africa. And then, in due course, quite accidentally, I married a former South African. That really has nothing to do with it, except that I love her.

But you say I followed, parroted, I think you said, the line of the ANC. Well, I didn't parrot anybody's line in the sense that they're dictating to me what I would write. I wrote what I thought were the feelings - I described, that is, what I thought were the feelings of the majority of the country, the overwhelming black majority. And it turned out that was true, because the ANC, whether we like it or not, has overwhelmingly won two elections that have occurred since the constitutional change.

And I thought the things that were done by the white minority regime during the apartheid years were appalling. They put people in prison for just saying things that they didn't like. They killed people, lots of people. And they carried out a repressive, racially discriminatory regime of a very severe character. I didn't like those things. And it doesn't seem to me you have to parrot anybody's line to dislike those things.

In fact, just about every American correspondent, no matter what his or her political views or where they came from, when they went to South Africa, were horrified by what they saw, the injustice and the cruelty. So I don't agree with you that there was any parroting involved.

RONALD: Well, I know - I mean, clearly, what you've said is true. But - I mean, there are other players, other black politicians in the scene, whom - whose views you did not embrace. I mean, Gatsha Buthelezi is a clear example of that.

LEWIS: It happens that one of the first black leaders I ever met in South Africa - I flew to his home in Kwazulu-Natal and spent the day with him - was Gatsha Buthelezi. But I - and I introduced him when he came to visit the United States and so forth. But it turned out that he took a view that was really playing footsy with the apartheid regime. And so he lost his credibility as a leader, and I had to face that fact.

CONAN: Ronald, thanks very much for the call.

RONALD: Thank you.

CONAN: You know, how is it now, after so many years facing those deadlines - I mean, so for, what, it's been less than a month? It must be a little bit like vacation, but to realize that you don't have that deadline any more.

LEWIS: I have to tell you, it doesn't feel like a vacation yet, Mr. Conan.

I'm still trying to answer the letters I've received, and I'm not making much more tense and I've - I'm doing this show, this program and I've done others, and I'm not un-busy. But I'll tell you what's most surprising to me. It wasn't a problem meeting the deadline. So I've been doing that all of my adult life, and I enjoyed it. I mean, there is something about that Gung-Ho stuff - cheap thrill, I know - but journalists like the deadline.

CONAN: Adrenaline is a fun drug.

LEWIS: The adrenaline, of course, it's adrenaline. So I thought when it stopped that I really would mind. But last week when the day passed on which I ordinarily write my column, I hadn't even noticed it, my wife said, how do you feel? I said, what do you mean? She said, well, you know, you didn't write a column today. I said, oh. So I seem too adjusted. I want to say - can I just say something, Mr. Conan?

CONAN: Sure.

LEWIS: You know, I've written a lot of serious things and mostly my column was serious and often critical of institutions, and countries and leaders. But, you know, I've had a wonderful time in journalism, and I just like to say what a great profession I think it is. It's got some marvelous people in it and you got a chance to meet those few who really provide leadership. They make the difference in a country, I think. Why are some countries better than those? Of course, they have natural resources or not, and they're lucky or not, but leadership makes difference right at the beginning of our country to have had Washington and then the generation that wrote the Constitution.

Well, in my time, I think, you know, two great attorneys generals who were my models in a way. One Republican, one Democrat: Edward Levi, Robert Kennedy. Or the chance to meet in - rather frequent we talk with Nelson Mandela. It's a terrific profession.

CONAN: The two-time Pulitzer winning journalist Anthony Lewis of The New York Times who died yesterday, two days shy of his 86th birthday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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