Joseph Kraft, a syndicated newspaper columnist whose work appeared in The Washington Post for 20 years and who was admired for his reportorial energy, his intellectual gifts and his broad spectrum of interests, died last night at the Washington Hospital Center. He was 61.

Regarded as a modern Renaissance man among columnists, Mr. Kraft was a seasoned traveler and tireless interviewer who was at home with economics and social issues as well as with foreign and domestic politics.

As a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and for the Los Angeles Times syndicate, Mr. Kraft was published, according to the estimates of syndicate officials, in more than 200 newspapers, whose circulation numbered in the many millions.

Known for penetrating analysis rather than partisan attacks, Mr. Kraft was widely considered to be an heir and exemplar of the great tradition of such eminent predecessors as Walter Lippmann.

Mr. Kraft, who lived in Georgetown was admitted to the hospital center shortly after Christmas. He died at 7:10 p.m. yesterday. Hospital officials said the cause of death was not immediately known, but one of his assistants said he died of heart failure.

He had a long history of heart problems and friends said he had suffered three heart attacks.

"I think he was a great columnist," said Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of The Post.

Calling Mr. Kraft one of the last survivors of "the great tradition of the extremely well informed generalists," Greenfield said "nobody did as much work as Joe in mastering a variety of very tough subjects."

" . . . We are going to miss him terribly much," she said. "I think newspapers all over the country will."

Born in South Orange, N.J., on Sept. 4, 1924, Mr. Kraft entered journalism at the age of 14 on a part-time basis when he began to cover high school sports for the old New York World Telegram.

After Army service from 1943 to 1946, he received a bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1947 and went on to graduate studies at Princeton University, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and at the Sorbonne in Paris.

After a brief stint in the early 1950s as an editorial writer for The Post, Mr. Kraft worked as a writer for the Sunday section of The New York Times from 1953 to 1957, and then published two books, "The Struggle for Algeria" in 1961 and "The Grand Design" in 1962.

For three years, beginning in 1962, he was Washington correspondent for Harper's magazine, and he was writing a column in the old Washington Evening Star in 1965.

When Benjamin C. Bradlee, now The Post's executive editor, joined The Post that year, one of his first moves was to induce Mr. Kraft to change newspapers.

Bradlee called Mr. Kraft a deeply intellectual man who displayed great humor and a breadth of interests that included nuclear policy, French politics and the Washington Redskins.

Among colleagues and peers, Mr. Kraft was known for his refusal to indulge in ivory-tower punditry and for the diligence with which he pursued the information on which his columns were based.

"He worked the phones unbelievably," Bradlee said. " . . . He was no thumbsucker. He was out on the street. He moved around. He talked to lots of people."

With the possible exception of I.F. Stone, "no journalist of his time in Washington studied the official documents more carefully, questioned officials more precisely, or worked so hard, knowing he had so little time, to fight for the facts and against the television pretenses of contemporary politicians," said James Reston of the New York Times.

Mr. Kraft held three awards for distinguished reporting from the Overseas Press Club. He contributed to The New Yorker and was the author of four books in all. The third and fourth were "Profiles in Power," published in 1966 and "The Chinese Difference," published in 1973.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, he wrote speeches for then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, and he was later a Ford fellow at Harvard and a Poynter fellow at Yale. In 1979 he delivered the Jefferson lectures at the University of California at Berkeley. France made him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

In describing his own work, he once said, "I try to identify what is important amidst the bewildering variety of events that continually occur."

After the death of Walter Lippmann in 1974, Encounter magazine described Mr. Kraft, in words echoed often last night, as "the only visible replacement for Walter Lippmann."

Anthony Day, editor of the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, called Mr. Kraft "a fiercely independent and superb and brave journalist."

For many years, despite serious health problems, he produced three columns a week. In recent years, the number was two. His last published column appeared on the page opposite the editorial page of The Post on Dec. 29. It was an optimistic column.

In it, Mr. Kraft called the year that was closing a "turnaround year."

"So my hunch is," he concluded, "that when all the figures come up on the table . . . Americans will find a way to beat the odds. We will balance welfare and defense and investment and social improvement in a rough way that does not blight vast numbers of lives. Both in dealing with the Russians and in dealing with ourselves, we will make good the promise of a turnaround year."

In addition to his wife, Polly, survivors include two stepsons, Mark Stevens of New York, and David Stevens of Denver, and a brother, Gilman Kraft of Los Angeles.