Charles “Chuck” Lewis, One of the Best-Connected Journalists in Washington, Dies at 80

From a Washington Post obit by Adam Bernstein headlined “Charles ‘Chuck’ Lewis, stalwart Washington journalist, dies at 80”:

Charles J. “Chuck” Lewis, a journalist who ran the Washington bureaus of the Associated Press and Hearst Newspapers, championed the release of AP reporter Terry Anderson from kidnappers in Lebanon, and co-wrote prizewinning stories about “friendly fire” casualties during the Persian Gulf War, died March 20 at a hospital in Arlington, Va….

Mr. Lewis was tall and straightbacked, his Midwestern politesse and his immaculate appearance befitting his early stints in the 1960s as a Chicago securities lawyer and Marine Corps reservist.

He never clambered into the seats of Sunday news talk shows — C-SPAN was the most animated media outlet he frequented — but he was one of the best-connected journalists in Washington. A networker and social connector par excellence, he enjoyed the chummy bonhomie of the Metropolitan Club, where he took early-morning swims and midday lunches and repaired to evening lectures with gray eminences of politics, lobbying and national defense.

He had given up a promising legal career for an apprenticeship at Chicago’s City News Bureau having tired, his wife said, of the button-down world of law and motivated to be part of history as it was unfolding….

Mr. Lewis settled in Washington in 1984, after a decade advancing through AP leadership assignments in Los Angeles, Hartford, Conn., and New York. During his five years as Washington bureau chief, he managed the daily coverage of the Reagan administration while also working behind the scenes to help free Anderson, a Middle East correspondent who had been abducted in 1985 from a street in Beirut.

Mr. Lewis traveled with Anderson’s sister Peggy Say to persuade leaders in the Middle East to intercede. He also served as the AP’s liaison to the White House, which named Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North of the National Security Council its point person for hostage issues.

Mr. Lewis’s dealings with North — he said they met about half a dozen times — became a contentious issue for two AP reporters examining North’s role in an illegal scheme that would soon become known as the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

After the wider scandal broke in 1986, reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger accused Mr. Lewis of currying favor with North by diluting or delaying their reporting on drug trafficking by members of the right-wing, U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras.

Mr. Lewis denied the accusations, telling the States News Service that the stories were investigative and needed to be handled gingerly because they often relied on the word of drug traffickers and arms dealers — people who, he said, were “not necessarily elders of the local church.”

In interviews at the time, AP President Louis D. Boccardi backed Mr. Lewis, who publicly acknowledged the thorny dual roles of editing stories involving North and continuing to partner with North on a serious personnel matter.

“I never felt all that comfortable,” Mr. Lewis told the New York Times. “I think that the AP will look back on this period as one of great internal frustration. It has been a balancing act, wearing different hats at different times, and I know it lends itself to perception problems. Still, the bottom line is that journalism didn’t suffer one bit.”

The end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 and other political factors in the region ultimately aligned to make Anderson’s freedom possible in 1991 but, in an email, Anderson said he was “grateful” for Mr. Lewis’s help.

Mr. Lewis had left AP in 1989 to run Hearst’s Washington bureau, serving newspapers from Seattle to Houston to Albany, N.Y. Hearst veteran Stewart Powell described the bureau as a journalistic “backwater” with little clout or ambition before Mr. Lewis arrived.

Powell said Mr. Lewis “was a go-go kind of guy who woke up the Washington bureau” and added an enterprise component in an effort to make Hearst a bigger and more aggressive player at the journalistic table.

After the U.S.-led war against Iraq, which they helped cover in 1991, Mr. Lewis and Powell spent months reporting on friendly fire incidents. “One out of six American troops killed in combat died of attacks by U.S. aircraft or ground fire during the 43-day offensive to dislodge Iraqi troops from Kuwait and crush Iraq’s offensive arsenal,” they wrote.

Their series revealed that a greater of percentage soldiers were killed and wounded by their own side than in any other major U.S. conflict in the 20th century. The vast and primitive desert conditions with few ground markings, ground-to-air communications problems and the increased deadliness of modern weaponry all contributed to the fatal errors, they reported.

They received awards from the National Headliner Club and the White House Correspondents’ Association, with judges from the latter group heralding “an outstanding example of journalistic enterprise that has exposed governmental failings and indifference.”

Charles Joseph Lewis was born in Bozeman, Mont., on July 10, 1940, and grew up in Peoria, Ill., where his father was an accountant and his mother taught home economics. He was sports editor of his high school newspaper.

He was a 1962 graduate of Loyola University in Chicago and a 1965 graduate of Columbia Law School in New York. He was assistant city editor at the Chicago Sun-Times before joining AP. He retired from Hearst in 2013 as senior editor….

Under the reserved posture of a skilled and stalwart news executive, Mr. Lewis nursed an unshakable love of Washington gossip and barbed comedy. At the annual Gridiron Club dinner, he once dressed as a broccoli stalk to ridicule President George H.W. Bush’s well-known loathing of the leafy green vegetable.

Mr. Lewis, who served as club president in 2013, also poked fun at President Barack Obama’s distaste — toward the media. He claimed he heard the president say upon entering the white-tie banquet: “So many newspaper reporters. So many interviews to turn down.”

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