Kenneth Crawford, who retired as a columnist for Newsweek 12 years ago after a distinguished 46-year career as a wire service reporter, war correspondent, political writer and magazine editor, died of lung cancer yesterday at his home in Washington. He was 80.

As a Washington correspondent, starting in the days of Calvin Coolidge, he won the confidence of presidents from FDR to Nixon. As a war correspondent, he was the first newsman to wade ashore in Normandy on D-Day in 1944, landing on Utah Beach with the first assault wave of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division.

He was the second president of the American Newspaper Guild, elected to serve out Heywood Broun's term after the founder of that journalists union died in 1939. He also was the author of two books, "The Pressure Boys," a pioneering look at the influence of Washington lobbyists published in 1939, and "Report on North Africa," a 1944 account of his early experiences as a war correspondent.

During World War II, he reported from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, England and Italy, as well as from the battlefields of France. Before joining Newsweek in 1943 he had worked for the United Press, the Buffalo Times, the New York Post and the experimental New York tabloid PM. He also wrote frequently for the old Saturday Evening Post, The Nation and The New Republic, and until a few years ago contributed often to the opposite editorial page of The Washington Post.

Whatever Mr. Crawford covered, whether it was the war in Vietnam (which he went to see firsthand at the age of 59) or a one-on-one interview with the president, he did it with an incisiveness and style that won him the admiration of his colleagues, his competitors, and those he wrote about about.

Lyndon Johnson said privately that Mr. Crawford was one of the few pundits he trusted, and Dwight Eisenhower, after leaving the White House, confessed that he was one of the few that he read. "He was beauty brave in action," fellow correspondent Ernest Hemingway wrote of him after they had crossed France with Patton's 3rd Army, often sharing the same jeep. "Everybody loved him and they used to ask me, hard, to try to keep him from getting killed."

"Ken Crawford set a shining example for a couple of generations of journalists in this town," said Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, who worked under Mr. Crawford in Newsweek's Washington Bureau in the 1950s. "Through his dedication to lean, explicit prose, and to fairness and integrity, he set high standards for all of us."

Tall and slender, with a black moustache and heavy black eyebrows, Mr. Crawford was described in 1940 as "the handsomest man in the congressional Press Gallery" by the late Ernest K. Lindley, his predecessor as Newsweek's Washington columnist. He kept his good looks, a wry sense of humor, and an abiding faith in the American political system--despite all the imperfections he had noted over the years--until the end.

Born in Sparta, Wis., on May 27, 1902, Kenneth Gale Crawford grew up in Jefferson, Wis., a rural county seat where, although he weighed barely 100 pounds, he quarterbacked his high school football team to a state championship. He attended his first political rally at the age of 10 when his father, a dentist and ardent "Bull Moose" Republican, took him to Jefferson's train station to greet Theodore Roosevelt, then campaigning for the presidency.

In 1924, after graduating as president of his class at Beloit College, he went to work in the Chicago Bureau of the United Press (now United Press International) at $25 a week. When on one of his first assignments he was sent to cover a hanging, he recalled recently, "I wondered if I had got into the wrong business." The murderer got a last-minute reprieve from the governor.

Three years later, as the UP's bureau chief in St. Louis, he again had to cover a hanging. This time the experience was made "bearable" for him by the "almost jovial" attitude of the condemned man, Charles Birger, a legendary figure in southern Illinois' Prohibition Era gang wars.

In those first three years with the UP, a period when news still moved by dot-dash telegraphy, Mr. Crawford worked in half a dozen cities. The UP moved him often, he later realized, because he was "cheap and mobile." But one reward of his migratory labors was that he met the woman he later married, Elisabeth Bartholomew, daughter of a Lansing physician, while covering the Michigan legislature.

His first assignment on arrival in Washington in 1927 was the White House--a fact that impressed him until he discovered that under Coolidge it was the "deadest beat" in town. He soon earned a transfer to Capitol Hill.

The following year he covered the vice presidential campaign of Herbert Hoover's running mate, Sen. Charles Curtis--a cross-country-and-back train trip during which vast quantities of bootleg whiskey were consumed and, Mr. Crawford swore, Curtis made the same speech, word for word, at every stop. To avoid writing the same story every day, Mr. Crawford and his Associated Press counterpart numbered the paragraphs in Curtis' oration and led each day's dispatch with a passage on which they had agreed in advance.

Fifty years later, Mr. Crawford still savored a part of the remarks in which Curtis, plumping for a tariff barrier against imports of dried and frozen eggs from China, declaimed: "Let us give the American hen a chance."

Among opinion columnists, Mr. Crawford, with his obvious concern for the "little guy," was counted early on as a liberal. While covering Washington for the New York Post in the 1930s, he wrote a weekly signed page for The Nation. He was paid $25 a page. When The New Republic offered him $50, he took over that liberal weekly's "TRB" column.

Richard Strout, who inherited the column from Mr. Crawford in 1943 and still writes it, later recalled: "He told me it would be easy. All you have to do is get mad at somebody once a week and spit in their eye."

Actually, civility was one of Mr. Crawford's journalistic trademarks. "The First Amendment doesn't impose an obligation on the free press to be needlessly offensive in its dealings with elected officials," he wrote in The Washington Post at the height of Watergate after President Nixon had been savaged in a televised press conference.

Reminiscing recently on his days as a leftish opinion-maker for the butcher paper weeklies in the heyday of the New Deal, Mr. Crawford wrote: "Why I became a convinced political rebel I don't quite know. Maybe it was because, having started with a minimum of self-confidence, I subconsciously classified myself as one of the underdogs with whom I sympathized."

One thing is certain: he never tailored an opinion to get on the popular side of an issue. In the 1930s, when "red-baiting" was a cardinal sin among liberals, he fought hard against the takeover of some American Newspaper Guild locals by communists and their sympathizers, then known as "fellow travelers." He argued that the communists were more interested in ideology than better pay for journalists. The fight cost him the ANG presidency at a raucous convention at Memphis in 1940.

Similarly, in the 1960s he was a "hawk" on Vietnam long after support for the war had evaporated and Newsweek had, as he put it, "gone all-out dove." In an article for The Washington Post in 1975 he warned against a "burgeoning of extreme pacifism" in the wake of the Vietnam withdrawal.

To those who insisted that war never solved any problems, Mr. Crawford asked: "What about Hitler?"

Although cited for bravery under fire by two celebrated war correspondents, Hemingway and Ernie Pyle, Mr. Crawford always belittled his distinction as the first reporter to land on a Normandy beach. After the war, while serving as president of Columbia University, Gen. Eisenhower remembered him and granted him an exclusive interview.

Mr. Crawford's friendship with Eisenhower enabled him to break several exclusive stories, including the first report, several years later, that Eisenhower was less than enthusiastic about his vice president and had urged him to "paddle his own canoe." The story was true, but it didn't prevent Nixon from holding onto his job when Ike ran for a second term.

In 1950, Mr. Crawford ghost-wrote "Presidents Who Have Known Me," an amusing memoir by George Allen, a perennial friend of White House occupants. While serving in New York as national affairs editor of Newsweek from 1949 to 1954, and after his return to Washington in 1954 as the magazine's bureau manager, he regularly ghosted the columns of retired Air Force chief of staff Gen. Carl (Tooey) Spaatz, then Newsweek's military analyst, and Leon Volkov, a refugee former Soviet bomber pilot who commented on Soviet affairs. He began writing his Washington column under his own name after the late Philip L. Graham, the president of The Washington Post Co., bought Newsweek in 1961.

In 1976, in one of the last signed pieces he wrote for The Washington Post, Mr. Crawford reflected soberly, almost bitterly, on the vagaries of the liberal movement he had championed for so long:

"Liberalism has no pope, not even in Georgetown. Its doctrine is a sometime thing, faddish and changeable. Often in the past it has judged all public questions and all public men by a single standard. After World War I, in reaction to U.S. intervention in Europe, it was isolationism. Then, for awhile, it was opposition to the 18th Amendment. Later the touchstone was loyalty to the Roosevelt New Deal. Next it was internationalism. Vietnam fixed that. The cult of liberalism is flexible from decade to decade but ferociously inflexible between transitions, as it is now, nursing its hanover from Vietnam."

In addition to his wife, of Washington, Mr. Crawford is survived by a son, William B., a CBS News TV producer in Washington; a daughter, Gale Pierce, a legislative aide to Sen. Alan J. Dixon (R-Ill.), and five grandchildren.

Since the 1960s, Mr. Crawford had maintained a summer home in Harbor Beach, Mich., where every year when he arrived there he opened what he called "a window on America."