For me, Lars-Erik Nelson was the best Washington columnist of his time, and his sudden death on November 20 at fifty-nine must be listed under unacceptable losses. His columns for the New York Daily News and Newsday were models of that difficult form, a combination of a humane intelligence, solid reporting, and a supple, fluid style. His writing always sparkled. He liked concrete nouns and active verbs, and each paragraph was as solid as a brick. He avoided pyrotechnics, because the goal was lucidity. The writing only appeared to be simple. It was about as simple as a Matisse. Try doing it. He also avoided writing for cheap applause. For Lars (which is what everyone in the trade called him), his job, as he saw it, was to illuminate, not entertain. And so the tone was always marked by that form of restraint that we sometimes call grace. In this case, the style was the man.
Lars had many other strengths. At the tabloids where he was a columnist, he never wrote down to his readers, because, unlike some of the businessmen who publish newspapers, he actually knew those readers. He grew up with them in Brooklyn. He traveled with them on the subways and sat with them in classrooms at the Bronx High School of Science and Columbia College. He respected them. He trusted their collective intelligence. In an e-mail to me last year, he wrote about his beloved Daily News: “From my standpoint, [Ed] Kosner has been a good editor. He understands the substance of the news, has a sense of fun,…has ideas, listens to ideas and agrees that they are sometimes better than his ideas. He also set the marker that we have to be the smartest paper in the city, which scared some people who thought that meant we were going upscale. It doesn’t; it just means we don’t treat our readers as if they are morons who don’t care about anything but cops, robbers, gossip, fires and sports.”
He believed, as I did, that a dumb tabloid was a tabloid doomed to extinction. When we worked together at Newsday and then at the Daily News, that belief was essential to our friendship. We shared a few other things. We were both from Brooklyn. We had both started out to be painters and joked that we’d failed out of art into newspapers. He was often more excited about the watercolors he was painting and the life class he was attending than about the absurdities of the Contract With America. I was also painting again, and we talked about having a joint exhibition of our work with the proceeds going to some charity. “As long as they don’t throw chairs at us,” Lars said, “it could be a lot of fun.”
That never happened, but art was one of the basic templates of his life. In that e-mail, he cited Robert Henri’s wonderful book The Art Spirit: “He writes that …