AN UNCOMMON MAN
Apr 22, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 31 • By DAVID AIKMAN
IT IS NOT EVERY DAY that a New York Times reporter, even after his death, is lauded as "a brilliant correspondent" by the president of the United States, celebrated by nationally syndicated newspaper columnist Cal Thomas as having brought "honor and distinction" to the profession of described by Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor of the New York Times, as possessing "a sweetness . . . that was treasured by all who knew him." Sweetness, as Lelyveld rightly noted, isn't intuitively associated with excellence among foreign correspondents.
Nathaniel Nash, 44, died in the plane crash in Croatia on April 3 that claimed the lives of Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and 34 other passengers and crew members. The New York Times's warm and generous obituary correctly called Nash "a passionate student of the Bible," but suggested this was journalism, and part of "a bundle of gentle anomalies" that included a good tennis game and enjoyment of fine wines. Those who knew Nathaniel primarily from the standpoint of his spiritual convictions, however, would have put it differently.
The very core of his personality was a passionate personal Christian faith that colored every aspect of his life: his decision to go into journalism itself, his marriage to Elizabeth, and above all that "sweetness." Well-born and well-bred as he was, Nathaniel derived his character not from his blue blood but from what Christians often call "a close walk with the Lord."
Nathaniel might have grown into a career as a pleasant, successful New England agnostic had he not experienced conversion in his first two weeks at Harvard. With the integrity that characterized him, he almost immediately made his faith public, believing that, if Christianity were indeed true, it was good news that everyone should hear. At one point, he sang hymns to the accompaniment of his own guitar at the top of the steps of Harvard's Widener Library, arguably one of the most sternly secular spots in North America. To his amazement, seven passing strangers stopped to listen, then mounted the steps to sing with him. They just "happened" to be Christians. He took it as divine encouragement.
Nathaniel was never in the least offensive with his faith, but when he went to the New York Times, he didn't hide it either. He once told friends that the editors had worried openly during a job interview that his Christianity might be incompatible with good reporting. Nathaniel's energetic and often brilliant performance of his job put their fears to rest. But he didn't stop playing his guitar, either. Sometimes, late of an evening among his business-section colleagues, he would quietly play hymns to help quell the fatigue and restlessness of deadlines. The Times, to its credit, didn't object to this manifestation of "sweetness."
Before his marriage in 1985 to Elizabeth, a missionary returned from South America, Nathaniel lived modestly in a small Christian community in Yonkers.
He often spent lunch hours and spare moments doing evangelical work in the streets, even in Times Square, just blocks away from his newsroom. Nathaniel was certainly a gifted journalist. But those of us who knew him well will cherish forever his seamless Christian character: diligent, full of wry humor, kind, and yet courageous in every way. For us, he will always be the epitome of a Christian in the profession of journalism: a witness for all seasons.
David Aikman, a former Time senior correspondent, is the organizer of an international conference of Christian journalists in Jerusalem in May.