Anthony Lewis at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts in January 2013. Photo by Jonathan Seitz
Tony Lewis was a welcome presence at Lippmann House.
In my early years as curator, Tony would come by during orientation to help the international fellows understand the history and meaning of the First Amendment. He recognized that many of the foreign journalists had no notion of constitutional protection of press and speech. He thought they needed a bit of preparation for the discussions on free press issues that flowed through the Nieman year.
Each year, his Wednesday afternoon seminar for the fellows was a singular moment. We listened eagerly as he described the inner workings of the Supreme Court, analyzed pivotal rulings, and offered sharp criticisms of justices whose thinking he found flawed. He would tell us that journalists were wrong to assume that the First Amendment gave them a special status apart from ordinary citizens.
Tony was a frequent contributor to Nieman Reports, writing about the role of the press in a democracy. The editors took careful note of his wide-ranging speeches and made a place in the magazine for passages that expressed his great grasp of the law and the courts.
In his later years, he would arrive at Lippmann House wearing his brown fedora, quietly taking a seat in the back of the seminar room. Most fellows remember their introduction to Tony on these occasions. When he raised his hand and asked a question, it was a clear reminder that he was one of America’s foremost thinkers on freedom of speech and the First Amendment.
His presence made you aware of his alert listening skills and the intensity of his command of important ideas.
In the Nieman family, Tony was known affectionately for being the fellow who made the most of his year at Harvard. He was in the Class of 1957 and famously devoted his fellowship to studies in the Law School, preparing to cover the Supreme Court. The fruits of his Nieman year could be found in the tireless scholarship he brought to his reporting on the court for The New York Times. His eloquent descriptions of its rulings set a new standard that has continued to shape coverage of the courts.
As significant as were his analytical coverage of the court for the Times and his commentary on the op-ed pages, Tony’s most profound and memorable contribution may be in his books and, later, his essays in The New York Review of Books. These were ideal platforms for his insightful thinking and scholarship on freedom of speech and First Amendment rights. “Gideon’s Trumpet” and “Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment” are seminal volumes that explained the court’s thinking on decisions that guaranteed lawyers for poor defendants and shaped libel law in the United States.
It was said that Tony moved easily among the powerful, but we never saw that side of him at Lippmann House. As he engaged with the fellows, he was modest almost to a fault and conveyed with dignity his eternal gratitude for his own Nieman experience.
Bob Giles, a 1966 Nieman Fellow, was curator of the Nieman Foundation from 2000 to 2011.