Lars-Erik Nelson never became a celebrity pundit. He appeared on television rarely. He did not speak with bombast. But the Daily News columnist and New York Review of Books contributor who died last week at the age of 59 towered over most of American journalism.
Nelson was a very rare thing in the contemporary media: He was a voice of genuine morality. If the word puts you off, it’s because so many charlatans have hijacked it to justify their latest poses. But it was exactly those people whom Lars so consistently and emphatically checked.
To say that he was best known for his position on this or that issue does him dishonor. To his legions of admirers – and virtually every serious-minded person I know held him in singular esteem – he was best known simply for slicing through the fog and saying what was true.
He was a liberal, and a merciless critic of Ken Starr, the House impeachment managers, and, more recently, George W. Bush. But I once heard him say, on one of his rare television appearances, that he was an enrolled Republican. It made a kind of sense: He belonged to, and apologized for, no one. As tough as he was on Starr, he also once wrote that Bill Clinton had disgraced his office and should resign.
He was serious, and those he wrote about had to take him seriously. Everyone is familiar with the Times’s astonishing apologia about its coverage of the Wen Ho Lee case. What not everyone knows is that it was Nelson, almost single-handedly, in a series of devastating columns, who forced the paper’s hand. I called him the day that “Editors’ Note” ran. He was happy, as he had a right to be, but he still spent far more time talking about the case than about himself. It is no wonder that, after Murray Kempton died, The New York Review of Books turned to Nelson to write essays on politics: He possessed the same moral compass. He was a force for good.