Not long after the Berlin Wall came down, my wife, Lexa, and I visited the city. We collected several small chunks of rough cement, relics of the barrier. About the size of a golf ball, they bore splotches of color, remains of the graffiti that had covered the wall.
When we returned home, we gave one of them to our friend Anthony Lewis, the admired New York Times columnist. In retrospect, I understand why. The Berlin Wall had stood through much of Tony’s prime, the perfect symbol of everything he opposed. That it was dismantled piece by piece, not by war but by a throng of humans desperate for democratic rights, embodied the triumph of all that Tony stood for. “I am with the party of hope,” he wrote in one column. Was he ever. An early commitment to furthering liberty guided him for decades — and also provided a standard against which a generation of other writers, including me, could measure their own commitments.
In the days since Tony’s death earlier this week, the highlights of his career have been amply recounted — his youthful defense of a fired Navy civil servant against the McCarthy red scare; his championing of equal rights, especially through “Gideon’s Trumpet,” about the landmark court case establishing indigent defendants’ right to a lawyer; his passionate advocacy on behalf of those on the margins. He made himself an expert in the law, and his commentary on the courts was itself a case study in how a free press can balance the scales of justice.
For many writers, and especially for me, his coverage of the Vietnam War was life-changing. He joined the Times op-ed page in 1969, just as Richard Nixon, betraying the promise of peace that had won him election, renewed US escalations. Tony became the war’s fierce critic, a man of authority whose voice weighed as much as the government’s, and who refused to treat his readers as anything but responsible for the government’s actions.
In a column written during the Christmas bombing of 1972, Tony named one of its victims. “Germans who said they knew nothing about the concentration camps,” he wrote, “were moved by Anne Frank. Some day, in the same way, Americans will read about Hoang Dinh Phong or others like him, and wonder how they can ever make up for the horrors their country committed. It is a Christmas of horrors.”
For a man occupying a place of such sway, Tony remained skeptical of power, and he could turn the laser of his criticism on his own positions. Having opposed the Vietnam War, he nevertheless became an early advocate of military intervention in the Balkans, where the savagery of mass rape and ethnic cleansing went unchecked for so long. At the time of the Dayton Accords, he wrote, “There is a bitterness in this peace for those of us who have urged American leadership since the conflict in the former Yugoslavia began.” That Tony had called for such leadership in military terms was unsettling to those of us who preferred, then and now, alternative paths of softer moral power. Yet two decades later, recalling how the atrocities in the Balkans kept mounting, I still find myself reckoning with my own views and wondering: Was Tony right?
Tony wasn’t one to force his positions. He showed that civility is not just a matter of manners, but of deep respect for others. By working hard to master the questions he addressed in all their complexity, he showed regard for the points of view he opposed. Indeed, he could often make the case against his own position better than his critics could. And while I once heard a mutual friend say of Tony that he would have been at home in discussions with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he always conducted himself, on the page and in person, with a modesty unheard of in a person of such gifts and influence.
These are not merely the characteristics of a praiseworthy man. Jefferson and Madison would be the first to see it: These are democratic values that lead to something even larger — the emergence of a world without walls. Or, in Tony’s phrase, a party of hope.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.