Often, as I researched the film, questions came up about who else in journalism was doing the kind of work Nat did in the latter half of the 20th century, focused on civil liberties, the law and the Constitution. Always and inevitably, the conversation turned to Anthony Lewis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist for the New York Times, who died yesterday at the age of 85.
Aryeh Neier, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union who is interviewed in the film, said Lewis was “the only other writer dealing with civil liberties as regularly” in those days. So did Floyd Abrams, the noted first amendment attorney.
Lewis had a different approach than Hentoff to the First Amendment. Hentoff is more of an absolutist, while Lewis said he recognized some limitations on speech. I called Nat this morning and asked him about Lewis’ passing.
“He was a major force and influence on me,” Hentoff said. “He did what has to be done repeatedly in this country, and that’s to awaken readers to the fact that there is a Constitution and they should know about it.
“He was lucid; he had a wonderful sense of narrative. One of Anthony Lewis’ main contributions was making the Constitution come alive in case after case. [His readers] really learned a lot more than just about the case. He had this controlled passion for the true meaning of Americanism, which is that we are the government. We are a self-governing nation. That is a major contribution.
“He was not an absolutist [on the First Amendment], but I’m not either, actually. I may sound like it, but I realize that absolutism leads to a lack of knowledge about reality.
“In the schools — and I talked to Anthony Lewis about this from time to time — there’s far less concentration on American history and on that part of American history that is who we are. For much of his life Anthony Lewis was getting — more than the Bill of Rights, but especially the Bill of Rights — into the lives of a lot of Americans. And that was a hell of a contribution.”
p.s., I am no relation to Lewis, but I did cross paths with his son — also named David, to the amusement of us both — during my sojourns in broadcast news.