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Lars-Erik Nelson; Influential Political Columnist for New York Daily News

November 22, 2000|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Lars-Erik Nelson, an influential columnist at the New York Daily News who was a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, has died.

Nelson died Monday at his home in suburban Washington, his family announced Tuesday. The cause of death was believed to be a stroke. He was 59.

A strong liberal voice in American journalism, Nelson was an early voice in calling for a more measured response in the espionage case of Wen Ho Lee, maintaining that charges against the Los Alamos scientist were overblown.

The columnist was a supporter of President Clinton against Republican efforts to impeach him in the Monica Lewinsky case.

Nelson was remembered Tuesday as a writer who went beyond external political positions and rhetoric.

"He was the most incisive and clearheaded and fearless commentator on national politics of recent years," said Robert B. Silvers, co-editor and one of the founders of the New York Review of Books.

"His writing style was immensely clear and muscular and subtle," Silvers said. "He was sardonic and skeptical without being cynical."

Nelson's early critique of the Wen Ho Lee business, in an article headlined "Washington: The Yellow Peril," appeared on July 15, 1999, in the New York Review of Books.

Lee, fired last year by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, pleaded guilty in September to mishandling government classified information at Los Alamos in a plea bargain agreement. In return, the government dropped 58 other charges against Lee.

For most of the previous 18 months, Lee had been under fierce federal scrutiny and was believed to have been connected with Chinese government efforts to steal an advanced U.S. thermonuclear warhead.

In one of Nelson's last columns, distributed by Tribune media, he took an insightful look at the ongoing battle for Florida.

"Gov. George W. Bush went to Florida's Supreme Court over the weekend with a simple claim: 'Gimme cookie now.'

"Vice President Gore wants his cookie later--but he wants it just as bad as Bush.

"(Something about these chaps invites comparisons to the most juvenile behavior--whom they remind you of from seventh grade, for example, or the kid you couldn't stand in kindergarten.)"

Praise for his work came Tuesday from across the political spectrum.

Clinton called Nelson "a fearless, independent, no-nonsense reporter and columnist." He said Nelson's gift "was translating complex stories about our democracy for the American people. He did it with humor and a dogged pursuit for the truth."

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the senator-elect of New York, said Nelson "had an acute sense of how our system worked and the importance of politics."

Arizona Sen. John McCain, whom Nelson wrote about extensively for the New York Review of Books, said Nelson offered his views "with the passion and eloquence of someone who meant them as expressions of his patriotism."

Before joining the Daily News in 1979, Nelson had been a diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, specializing in Soviet and eastern European affairs, reporting from London, Prague, Moscow, New York and Washington.

From 1993 to 1995 he was Washington columnist for Newsday, before returning to the Daily News. He had been writing for the New York Review of Books for the last two years.

Earlier he had worked at the Riverdale (N.Y.) Press, the New York Herald Tribune, the Current Digest of the Soviet Press and The Record in Bergen County, N.J.

A native New Yorker, Nelson was a graduate of Columbia College with a major in Russian. He also was fluent in Czech, French and Swedish.

He was married to the former Goody Cantwell and had two grown children.

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