Samuel Lewis, Man of Uncommon Judgment, Gone When We Need Him Most


By Aaron David Miller

Published March 12, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Sam Lewis was my friend, my boss and my teacher through some tough and turbulent times, and taught me more about diplomacy than almost anyone.

Sam, who died in his home in Virginia on March 10 at 83, was not just another career diplomat, especially when it came to Israel. After serving eight years as one of America’s most influential ambassadors to Israel, from 1977 to 1985, Sam, who was not Jewish, returned to the country more than 50 times. During his service later as director of policy and planning at the State Department from 1993 to 1994, he played a crucial role in the early days of the Middle East peace process. And in between those two government posts, Sam was the founding president of the United States Institute of Peace, an independent, congressionally chartered institution involved in analyzing and advising on conflict resolution around the world.

Sam Lewis
Sam Lewis

But beneath the formalities and veneer of serialized accomplishments that typify the formal résumé of a successful diplomat, Sam had unique qualities that made that formal résumé possible. These traits made him a special — if at times tough — person to work for and with.

There was, to begin with, Sam’s directness and toughness. It’s a quality I know something about. My father, Sam Miller, a prominent Cleveland developer and World War II vet, is himself one tough guy. He threw out of his office a Japanese industrialist who was an hour late for a meeting by telling his flabbergasted visitor that he wasn’t late for Pearl Harbor. So when my father called about a guy named Sam Lewis who had come to see him about donating funds for USIP, I feared the worst. But my father was calling to give Sam his hekhsher. “This guy’s tougher than me,” he said. “For a State Department guy, he’s really okay. In fact, I really like him.”

Directness can be a perilous quality in diplomacy, which is, by and large, a get-along business. But Sam deployed his directness strategically with a gracious but steely Texas manner.

There were traces of James Baker, a fellow Texan, in that direct no-nonsense style. While it was hardly a conventional Foreign Service officer’s attribute, it worked for Sam.

A natural analyst and voracious consumer of intelligence, Sam was also determined to see the world the way it was, and not to try to make policy based only on the way we wanted it to be. He believed that to fix the world, you first have to understand it. It was Sam who, from his unique vantage point in Tel Aviv, urged President Carter to try to understand Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and not give in easily to the overwhelming inclination to confront him. As demonstrated at Carter’s 1978 Camp David summit meetings, where he brokered peace between Israel and Egypt, Sam was right.

Finally, Sam Lewis was a wise man. He had the experience, the judgment and the intuitive sense of prudence that leads to wisdom. When Sam spoke, people listened. He had a rare authority and a tendency to weigh matters carefully, to find the balance — if there was one to be found — between doing too much and not enough. He knew Israel well, strived to understand the region in all its complexity and was realistic about Washington, which he regarded as a key force in producing good outcomes — even solutions in the Middle East — assuming that the parties and the president were willing to make tough choices. You’ll need to apply both honey and vinegar on everyone to make Middle East peace, he’d always say.

I’m going to miss Sam Lewis. We all should. America has lost a man of uncommon judgment and authenticity at a moment when we desperately need his qualities.

Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, worked at the State Department for 24 years, where he was a senior Middle East advisor to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.