Flora Lewis Remembered

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison tells us about the exceptional life and work of correspondent and columnist Flora Lewis.

(Robison) The distinguished newspaper columnist Flora Lewis died this week at her home in Paris. Her death, at age 79, surely marks the passing of an era in international reporting. She began writing about international politics in 1942 as a young reporter for the Associated Press and she continued writing until shortly before her death this week.

A brief and incomplete history of her exceptional career would include the following: reporting jobs in New York, London, Paris, Jerusalem, Prague, Warsaw, Geneva, Mexico City, Bonn, and Vietnam; writing for, at various times, The Washington Post, Newsday, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Economist, The Financial Times and The Observer of London; covering wars hot and cold; peace conferences and numerous major negotiations¿the list could indeed go on and on.

In 1972, when the executive editor of The New York Times named her to head that newspaper’s Paris bureau, he said, "Flora is the world’s greatest correspondent." Then, in 1980, Flora Lewis became the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times and continued later in a similar role for The International Herald Tribune. The Times and the Tribune and the wide syndication of her columns through their global networks gave her work an extraordinary readership. Very, very few journalists have had such an influential audience over so long a time.

I was privileged to know Flora over the last 25 years or so. We attended many of the same international meetings and conferences, we shared some of the same political prejudices, and enjoyed quite a few meals together. I was certainly not the only person who stood in awe of her perceptive writing abilities. It was not uncommon, during the waning years of the Cold War, to see Flora at some international gathering where she would be the last person to leave the hotel bar long after midnight and she was an unrepentant chain-smoker. She would be on time the next morning for the first session but would appear to sleep through it. And then she would go off and write far and away the most perceptive analysis imaginable condensing hours or even days of meetings into a concise and perceptive statement of what was really going on underneath all the diplomatic posturing and the nonsense that passes for profundity, simply because it is uttered by some person of high office.

Hers was a rare and valuable gift. But her exceptional work was also a tribute to self-discipline¿the drink and cigarettes notwithstanding¿to a deep understanding of a lot of history, and to a basic optimism about the human condition despite a thorough knowledge of the suffering humans can and do inflict on one another. That basic optimism was reflected in a statement she wrote in her last regular column for The New York Times back in 1990. It went like this: "The old idea was that history was about kings and popes and wars; people, yes, but only the few who held dazzling power. More and more people are coming to realize that they can choose their history. What a wonderful time to have been able to watch up close." Hers was a humane voice that held steady through some very turbulent times. And the world is a better place for it.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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