With the passing of legendary New York Times newsman Anthony Lewis this week, observers have noted that his lasting legacy will likely be his clarion insights and logical, lucid writing style that helped make the courts and the law more accessible for everyday news consumers. From his two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting, to his opinion column which he wrote for more than three decades, Lewis' imprint on the Times was vast.
What may be getting overlooked in the remembrances though, and what the Times itself neglected to mention in its otherwise thorough Lewis obituary, was the pivotal role Lewis played during the 1990s when he stood up to his own newspaper, as well as to an army of Republican partisans waging war against President Bill Clinton. Lewis wrote passionately about the mindless pursuit of the Whitewater story and the Clinton impeachment saga. As a legal scholar, Lewis was utterly appalled by the conduct of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and his office of "thuggish deputies."
Today, pointing out the gaping holes in the Whitewater tale and the impeachment media circus might seem like common sense punditry. But at the time, and especially inside the Times, where a fever-swamp disdain for Clinton ran wild, Lewis' level-headed truth telling stood out.
"For a while there, he seemed the only sane and dispassionate person at the New York Times," author Gene Lyons told Media Matters this week. Lyons detailed the Times' journalism shortcomings in his 1996 book, Fools For Scandal: How The Media Invented Whitewater, and co-wrote with Joe Conason The Hunting of the President: The Ten Year Campaign To Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Lewis wasn't shy about listing Clinton's policy faults and failures. (He despised the "cruel" Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed in 1996.) But he refused to stand by while the law was so transparently used, and misused, as a political weapon, first in an attempt to destroy Clinton's presidency via the Whitewater investigations, and then in an attempt to drive Clinton from office with impeachment.
Additionally, Lewis served as an important counter-balance on the Op-Ed page to the Times' William Safire. Whereas his conservative colleague Safire got almost everything wrong for eight years about the Clinton scandals, Lewis, following the facts and common sense, got it right. (Safire didn't fare much better during the Bush years, hyping "the "undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks.")
A liberal who wasn't known as a partisan brawler, Lewis' gaze more often seemed fixed on matters that transcended the typical right/left warfare. Yet he remained a steward of justice and fair play and refused to remain silent when he saw the young Democratic president being hounded by his political opponents and by the Beltway press in a way the writer had never seen before.