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

WASHINGTON — 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 evening in hospice care at a memory care center in Washington, said his cousin, Katherine Knutson Garrett, who recently settled his affairs.

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

During that time, he established himself as an expert on Washington — “a city of inspiration and resentment, of spring bloom and eternal ambition, a low-rise marble capital that tourists revere and critics vilify,” he wrote. soul of the place with him, no matter how soulless that place may seem to some.

Born in Chicago, Lawrence Lauder Knutson grew up in Milwaukee and rural Wisconsin before interrupting his college studies to enlist in the military. He was sent to an American base outside Bordeaux, France, where he produced the base newspaper and wondered “what journalism would look like if you did it for real.”

He worked for the City News Bureau of Chicago, after the military and college, and then for the Chicago Tribune before the AP hired him in 1965. The following year, he was just feet away from an open house march led by Martin Luther King Jr. , when a rock hurled by hostile bystanders struck King on the head, causing him to fall to one knee.

“He recovered and, surrounded by aides, led about 700 people through a hostile crowd that numbered 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 that were more intimate than the official guides. He also had his eccentricities.

“For years sitting next to Larry in the Senate Press Gallery, I always admired his quick grasp of a story, his writing and his love for Congress as an institution,” said former AP writer Jim Luther. “And who doesn't make notes on a checkbook or use a paperclip to hold their glasses together?”

The story concerns a legion of Knutsons who sleep in late when they are in New York to cover a 1986 whistle-stop train trip by Jimmy Carter and presidential running mate Walter Mondale to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Missing the train, Knutson took a series of taxis from town to town, racking up a substantial bill, but at each stop he discovered the train was gone.

In a line of work that is relentlessly focused on the moment, Knutson was also someone who looked back and reached for lessons from history that shaped the present.

“Larry did indeed have deep knowledge of congressional and Washington politics,” said Sandy Johnson, 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 delightful writing about Washington history was an antidote to the seriousness and infighting of the usual headline news – and his columns always made me smile.”

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

And this, in the days of Bill (“Slick Willie”) Clinton: “A nickname, the saying goes, is 'the heaviest stone the devil can throw at a man.' Some wound and leave scars, some linger like burrs, others fall away and are forgotten.

“American presidents have been given and endured nicknames since George Washington was called the 'Sword of the Revolution', the 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, Wis., where many family members are buried, his cousin said. No details were immediately released about a memorial service or its survivors.


Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.