The passing last week of Anthony Lewis, the iconic liberal columnist of the New York Times, twice a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, and author of the highly acclaimed book, "Gideon's Trumpet," which has never gone out of print, has spawned commentary and tributes from scribes on both the right and left.
Eric Alterman's salute to Lewis in The Nation, recalls a lengthy conversation in which Lewis responded to the characterization of him as a "leftist."
"It's absolutely hilarious to me," he replied. "I mean, I'm pro-capitalist, middle-of-the road, tepid centrist. Is it is 'left' to insist that presidents and CIA directors adhere to the law? I don't think so. I think it's American."
Lewis was right. It has been characteristically American, since the founding, to express skepticism about the exercise of power and to insist that governmental officials "adhere to the law."
The rich literature of the colonial period and the early republic exalted the importance of questioning authority, and it didn't matter whether it was exercised by King George or George Washington. Concerns about the exercise of power, born of its relationship to the Constitution and its impact on liberties, have long been the property of both the right and the left.
That's largely a function of the fact that while Americans have been intrigued with the possibilities of power, and those who have ridden the horse of power, they have expressed greater concerns about being trampled by the horse of power.
Lewis, on the left, like William F. Buckley, the iconic and eloquent conservative on the right, built careers founded on criticism of the abuse of power and insistence on governmental adherence to the rule of law. Buckley, for instance, was one of the first conservatives who warned in the 1950s about the unconstitutional expansion of presidential power.
I grew up reading - and admiring - the newspaper columns of Lewis and Buckley. Some might think this would lead to confusion of thought for a teenager but, for some unlikely reason, I relished their clashing viewpoints. In time, they became mentors from afar. I admired the clarity, energy and eloquence of their prose, and the hard-hitting arguments that they brought to the printed page, particularly when they inveighed against the abuse of power. I saw in their works the intellectual ancestry of dissenters like Paine, Franklin and Jefferson.
Their criticisms of public officials, programs and actions, and their insistence that government adhere to the law, albeit from decidedly different perspectives, provided an education far beyond the four corners of my classroom in southwestern Michigan. One week, I was pro-Lewis; the next, pro-Buckley. Such was the persuasive power of their writings. I connected with each writer.
Years later, when Lewis referred to some of my questions as "fair" and "good," and Buckley's magazine, The National Review, quoted some of my remarks on the Constitution and presidential power, I was gratified.
For me, the circle had been closed. I continue to re-read essays written by Buckley and Lewis and regard it as an exercise in maintaining a sort of intellectual self-awareness, an internal doctrine of checks and balances.
Certainly there is much to be gained in the world of politics through the practice of reading views that are at odds with one's own perspective. That, in a nutshell, as John Stuart Mill wrote, is the cornerstone of education and enlightened dialogue. For some, that can be a daunting prospect. But the rewards are great. A change of viewpoint grounded in a rigorous review of one's premises is one of the most satisfying intellectual achievements. Confirmation of one's own view, in the wake of a reading program that throws one's values into somersaults en route to clarity is equally satisfying.
What's intellectually healthy for individuals is healthy for our Democracy. Civic dialogue can be improved through a combination of open-mindedness, commitment to reason and skepticism about the exercise of power. And that effort can proceed on the premise that governmental officials have a responsibility to obey the rule of law. That premise, as Lewis and Buckley demonstrated, is the property of neither the right or the left. It is American.
Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution, the presidency and the Bill of Rights.