On the morning after political columnist Lars-Erik Nelson died, talk radio host Don Imus hailed him this way: “He was a brilliant journalist, even though he wrote for the New York Daily News.”
Listeners know that beneath his flinty exterior, Imus is essentially good-hearted and meant no real harm. But it’s unlikely they know about the small history between the two men, encounters that may well have encouraged the radio man to salt his salute with a final jab.
If not for his unrelenting insistence on cutting no corners, Lars-Erik Nelson would have made a great Imus guest, a welcome addition to the stable of eminent, witty people who appear on the show. Nelson was a man who spoke in the same simple, declarative sentences with which he wrote. He was learned on subjects from nuclear arms to welfare. Three times a week, Nelson pulled a torrent of words from his computer, words that earned him the admiration and respect, if not agreement, of all who read him. In recent years, Nelson did double-duty, writing longer pieces for The New York Review of Books on the Clinton era and the candidacies of George W. Bush and Al Gore, an accomplishment that certainly attracted the notice of journalism connoisseur Imus.
But the reason for the audible giggles in the Imus studio may have been that Nelson, unlike other pundits eager to glow in Imus’s national spotlight, had written about the radio host’s frequent excesses, citing him in print for over-the-top references to ethnic groups. A few years ago, Nelson even faulted longtime Imus favorite Senator Joseph Lieberman for railing on the show about TV’s poor moral content while ignoring Imus’s own often sophomoric sex and race jokes. For one column, Nelson interviewed Imus off the air about a particularly grating reference to Jews made by the host, and won a rare concession from Imus, whom he called “intelligent and hardworking,” that he had gone too far. With the entire globe as his beat, Nelson could easily have spared the popular talk show host his critical scrutiny. But that would have been some other reporter.
He died in the 10th inning of the biggest game in decades, one that he understood like few others. But even if the end had come at some other moment, his death last week at the age of 59 was a huge loss to those who looked to his columns for insight and understanding. Even more so, of course, to his friends and colleagues, who knew firsthand that, unlike many brilliant commentators, Nelson was capable of great kindness and decency in everyday life as well as in print. A painter of landscapes and a gardener in his off-hours, he took the time to worry about others, be they novices or princes. In his devotion to his trade, it appears he literally wrote his heart out in his final days, churning out 45 columns in the 10 weeks up to his death.
News readers expect to find some streetwise tabloid columnist of the Mike Daly, Jim Dwyer, or Juan Gonzalez stripe when they buy their paper. Nelson was always an added, special bonus.
A Brooklyn native and Bronx Science graduate, he spoke Russian and other Slavic languages and had served as a wire service reporter in London, Moscow, and Prague. He was capable of converting the complex visa program for immigrant technical workers into clear prose while at the same time slamming it on the ground: “Where can you hire a skilled young computer programmer who will work long hours without protest and who can’t quit for a better-paying job? Import one!” he opened one column earlier this year. A registered Republican and avowed populist-liberal, Nelson spotlighted flaws on both sides of the political fence. He provided his usual insights from the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, but also wrote about an outdoor camp of homeless and mentally ill people sleeping in Palisades Park. Watching candidate Gore, he wrote this summer, was like “watching Pat Boone sing ‘Tutti Frutti.’ ” A lover of New York and admirer of Mayor Giuliani’s accomplishments, he was still the only journalist at the reporter-packed Inner Circle dinner this year to chastise Giuliani for pantomiming the president having sex in his skit, while First Lady Hillary Clinton sat directly in front of the stage.
It was that same straight-arrow refusal to dodge any bullet or turn a blind eye that led him to the case of Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, after The New York Times, quoting unnamed sources, called him a potential culprit in the worst espionage case since the Rosenbergs. For the rest of us weaker-willed scribes, the mere idea of attacking the Times—a wished-for employer for most reporters and a major influence on big journalistic prizes—would make our computers freeze up. Nelson, however, relentlessly hammered away at the paper, in the News as well as the New York Review, for aiding what he saw as an “updated version” of the McCarthy-era “kangaroo courts, xenophobic hysteria, and moral cowardice.” This spring, after a federal judge apologized to Lee for his months of imprisonment, the Times was forced to write a muted but rare apology.
For several years, Lars Nelson’s columns were of Pulitzer caliber; of his final year’s work there can be no doubt. For the honor of our own profession, if not for his memory, the Pulitzer judges would do well to cite Lars-Erik Nelson next spring.