Lars-Erik Nelson '64: A Subversive Among
By Timothy P.
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."
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
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
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."
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.