AP’s Lawrence Knutson, who covered Washington’s transcendent events for nearly 4 decades, has died

Dec 17, 2023, 12:56 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawrence L. Knutson, a longtime Associated Press writer whose deep knowledge of the presidency, Congress and American history made him an institution in his own right, has died. He was 87.

Knutson, who had prostate cancer and other health problems, died Saturday night in hospice care at a memory care facility in Washington, said his cousin, Katherine Knutson Garrett, who had recently been managing his affairs.

Knutson’s AP career spanned 37 years and the terms of eight presidents before his retirement in 2003.

In that time, he established himself as an expert on Washington — “a city of inspiration and spite, of spring bloom and eternal ambition, a low-rise marble capital that tourists honor and critics malign,” he wrote. He seemed to carry the soul of the place with him, as soulless as that place could seem to be to some.

Born in Chicago, Lawrence Lauder Knutson was raised in Milwaukee and rural Wisconsin before he interrupted his university studies to enlist in the Army. He was sent to a U.S. base outside Bordeaux, France, where he produced the base newspaper and wondered “what journalism would be like if you did it for real.”

He worked for the City News Bureau of Chicago after the Army and university, then the Chicago Tribune before the AP hired him in 1965. The next year, he was mere feet away, covering an open-housing march led by Martin Luther King Jr., when a rock hurled from hostile bystanders struck King on the head, knocking him to one knee.

“He recovered, and surrounded by aides, led about 700 people through hostile crowds numbering in the thousands,” Knutson recalled. Knutson transferred to Washington in 1967.

Colleagues remember Knutson as an elegant writer on the transcendent events of his time. He was always quick to give acquaintances tours of Congress more intimate than the official tour guides put on. He also had his eccentricities.

“Sitting beside Larry in the Senate Press Gallery for many years, I always admired his quick grasp of a story, his writing and his love of Congress as an institution,” said former AP writer Jim Luther. “And who doesn’t take notes on a checkbook or use a paper clip to hold his glasses together?”

The story is legion of Knutson sleeping in late when in New York to cover a 1986 whistle-stop train tour by Jimmy Carter and presidential running mate Walter Mondale to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Missing the train, Knutson took a succession of cabs from city to city, racking up a substantial bill only to find the train gone when he got to each stop.

In a line of work that is relentlessly focused on the moment, Knutson was also one to look back, reaching for lessons of history that informed the present.

“Larry was indeed deeply knowledgeable about Congress and Washington politics,” said Sandy Johnson, a former AP Washington bureau chief. “But what I remember most vividly is his interest in history, which translated into a column we called Washington Yesterday. His insightful and delightful writing about Washington history was an antidote to the gravity and infighting of the usual capital news — and his columns always made me smile.”

There was his story about presidential portraits: “George Washington came to the presidency under siege by artists who saw his character and their fortunes in the contours of his face. The American Revolution’s commander in chief found persistent artists more irritating than the crack of British muskets; the lengthy sittings portrait painters required were, he said, mind-numbing wastes of fleeting time.”

And this, in the age of Bill (“Slick Willie”) Clinton: “A nickname, says the proverb, is ‘the heaviest stone the devil can throw at a man.’ Some wound and leave scars. Some stick like burrs. Others fall away and are forgotten.

“American presidents have attracted and endured nicknames ever since George Washington was called the ‘Sword of the Revolution,’ Father of His Country,’ the ‘Sage of Mount Vernon’ and, interestingly, ‘The Old Fox.’”

After his retirement, Knutson wrote a book about presidential vacations and retreats, “Away from the White House,” published by the White House Historical Association.

Knutson will be buried in a small cemetery in City Point, Wisconsin, where many family members are interred, his cousin said. No details were immediately released on a memorial service or his survivors.


Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

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AP’s Lawrence Knutson, who covered Washington’s transcendent events for nearly 4 decades, has died