George J. Ames '37:   Financier and   Philanthropist
Those Were the Days,   My Friend!

 

  
Roar, Lion Roar!
  

 
Nicole Marwell '90
Mignon Moore '92
Joshua Harris Prager   '94
Cristina Teuscher '00
 
   

ALUMNI PROFILE
Lars-Erik Nelson '64: A Subversive Among Cynics

By Timothy P. Cross

No one could ever accuse journalist Lars-Erik Nelson '64 of mincing words. In a 1998 New York Daily News column, "He's a Moral Pygmy But Still Our Prez," written at the height of the Bill Clinton impeachment imbroglio, Nelson damned both sides: "And with all his faults, Clinton still retains his greatest asset: His worst political enemies are so loathsome, so greedy, so filled with venom that any alternative, even a moral pygmy, looks better."

It says something about the skill and character of Nelson, 59, who died suddenly of an apparent stroke in his Bethesda, Md., home on November 20, 2000, that even the subjects of his journalistic ire mourned his loss. In a statement expressing sadness at Nelson's death, then-President Clinton praised Nelson as "one of New York's most distinctive voices and one of America's leading journalists" with a gift for "translating stories about our democracy for the American people." In a similar vein, former Vice President Al Gore lauded Nelson for "his honest, probing analysis and keen journalistic talent" while Senator John McCain described him as "a columnist who offered his views on the political issues of our day with the passion and eloquence of someone who meant them as expressions of his patriotism."

Nelson was born in Brooklyn and attended the Bronx High School of Science. At the College, he majored in Russian. He went to work for the Riverdale Press before joining Reuters in 1967 as a correspondent, with postings in London, Prague (where he covered the 1968 Prague Spring), New York, Washington and Moscow. (The Daily News reported that at the State Department he used to infuriate his less versatile fellow reporters by questioning the Soviet ambassador in Russian. Nelson was competent in Polish and Czech and knew some French, Italian and Japanese as well.) He also wrote for the New York Herald-Tribune and The Bergen County Record. Nelson joined Newsweek as a diplomatic correspondent in Moscow in 1977, then jumped to the Daily News in 1979 as Washington Bureau chief. In 1993, Nelson joined Newsday as a columnist but returned to the Daily News in 1995.

The Daily News has always reveled in its status as New York's blue-collar paper, but Nelson never acted as if that meant dumbing down content. "We have to be the smartest paper in the city," he once wrote his friend Pete Hamill, a former Daily News editor. "We don't treat our readers as if they are morons who don't care about anything but cops, robbers, gossip, fires and sports." His long-time colleague at the Daily News, Jim Dwyer, remembered Nelson as a mentor for other writers - and for his vast integrity. He "functioned as a subversive among cynics," Dwyer said.

Although primarily a columnist for the Daily News, Nelson could still flex his investigative reporter's muscles. He is credited with the scoop that then-Speaker Newt Gingrich had been prompted to close the government down in 1995 in a fit of pique over receiving a seat in the back of Air Force One during the flight to the funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minister Rabin. The story led to one of the most famous Daily News covers of the last decade: a gleeful, full-page caricature of Gingrich as a screaming, diapered infant with the headline: "Crybaby!"

Nelson appealed to a more intellectual crowd as well. In the two years before his death, he contributed nearly 20 pieces for The New York Review of Books, including a summary of the Wen Ho Lee spy case, about which he had written a series of Daily News columns harshly critical of The New York Times's coverage, and a profile of John McCain.

Nelson never drifted far from the printed word, or sought out other media. (The Times reported that a rare foray on the Sunday-morning news program, Meet the Press, left Nelson so exasperated with the host's self importance that he took to calling the program Me the Press.) His columns and articles earned him the respect of colleagues, politicians and countless readers. Syndicated columnist Jimmy Breslin said Nelson was "the single, solitary best person I have met in my business." He was "someone who told truth with joy."

On January 23, a memorial service held in the Roone Arledge Auditorium on campus drew more than 300 of Nelson's colleagues and admirers, including WNBC newscaster Chuck Scarborough, gossip columnist Liz Smith, Congressman Jerrold Nadler '69, political commentator Arianna Huffington, New York City Public Advocate Mark Green, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, and CNN newscaster Tony Guida. Speakers at the memorial - in addition to Breslin, Dwyer and Hamill - included former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who described Nelson as "a brilliant writer who never lost his common touch," and former Carter administration press secretary Hodding Carter, who spoke of Nelson as a "happy warrior in a craft that is in the midst of unhappy and trying times."

Mortimer B. Zuckerman, the publisher of the Daily News, announced that the newspaper was establishing the Lars-Erik Nelson Prize, an annual $5,000 award at the Journalism School. Representative Carolyn Maloney also presented a copy of the tribute to Nelson that she had placed in the Congressional Record to his son, Peter Nelson.

Nelson's last column, written in the midst of the Florida vote recount and published the day after he died, has become a sort of monument to his style and substance. "Exactly two years ago, lawyers were trying to take a President away from us," he wrote. "Yesterday, they were trying to give us one. And both times, we, the voters in this great democracy, could only watch."

Nelson's family has requested that donations in his memory be sent to The Committee to Protect Journalists, 330 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001.

 

 
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