David Lawrence: A Profile

The founder of U.S. News was a prolific and influential writer.

David Lawrence.

David Lawrence.

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It was 1933, Franklin Roosevelt had taken office, and the country and the world were in the midst of tremendous upheaval. The Nazi Party seized power in Germany, Mahatma Gandhi began a hunger strike in India, and Japan left the League of Nations. At home, 1 in 4 Americans was unemployed, industrial production fell 50 percent, and the Dust Bowl began blanketing the American West, forcing thousands from their homes. FDR started putting the nation back to work with New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Civil Works Administration.

It was a turbulent period for the country but an auspicious time for nationally syndicated columnist David Lawrence to launch United States News, a weekly newspaper devoted to the details of government and targeted at business people, politicians, and community leaders who all had a stake in the public's business. Lawrence was not a fan of FDR or big government, yet for years he kept a portrait of FDR in his conference room. "He's our patron saint," he once said. "He made news and information about government important to everybody. [And] that's what we're offering."

And that's what Lawrence would offer for more than half a century as one of the most widely read conservative voices in America. At its height, his column appeared in more than 300 newspapers. Lawrence expressed his views on states' rights, small government, and a fiercely anticommunist foreign policy. And while his columns were shaping public opinion, he founded publications that came to shape and define modern journalism. The Consolidated Press Association, which he founded, distributed his columns, the afternoon closing stock prices, and news features. The Bureau of National Affairs, also a Lawrence project, reports on legislation, regulation, and court rulings. And the most notable: U.S.News & World Report, the national magazine that resulted from a 1948 merger between United States News and Lawrence's weekly magazine World Report. "When the American people come to understand more and more of the delinquencies of government," he said in 1935, "the people will be drastic in their demands for reform."

David Lawrence started his career as a student at Princeton University when he was a campus correspondent for the Associated Press and Woodrow Wilson was the college's president. When Wilson ran for president of the United States, Lawrence followed him on the campaign trail, then chronicled his presidency as a Washington correspondent for AP and later for the New York Evening Post. So close was Lawrence to the president that he was often derided as Wilson's "spokesman." Industrialist Henry Ford, in one of his notorious anti-Semitic screeds, called "Jewish journalist David Lawrence" Wilson's "unofficial mouthpiece" and claimed he had the "run of the White House offices."

But Lawrence was not one to let personal relationships get in the way of a story. In 1920, after Wilson suffered a stroke that left him virtually incapable of governing, Lawrence was one of the first to note the president's compromised state. The story cost him the president's friendship and came at the end of his career as a reporter. But it began his even more impressive tenure as one of the nation's most prolific and influential political columnists, typing a daily dispatch from Washington "with a two-fingered clatter of typewriter keys at machine-gun speed" from 1919 until the day he died in 1973.

During the next half century, Lawrence covered 11 presidents, in addition to countless diplomats, generals, and bureaucrats who built and tended the machinery of government. "Fortunately, within the huge mass of people, there is an intelligent class of men and women who care very much what goes on in government," Lawrence said of U.S.News & World Report, "who manifest their interest not merely by their votes on Election Day but by their alertness to the news of national and international affairs every year, every month, every week, and every day."

Stern judgment. Yet Lawrence's most enduring legacy is arguably his staunchly conservative dispatches, writings that often put him at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy of the day and that have exposed him to the stern judgment of history. He admired American industry and loathed government regulation and organized labor. He supported the Vietnam War and urged the levying of higher taxes to foot the bill. "What the United States is doing in Vietnam is the most significant example of philanthropy extended by one people to another that we have witnessed in our times," he wrote. He was stridently opposed to the civil rights movement, which he saw as too reactionary, and was unabashed in his support of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's efforts to expose Communists in the early 1950s. He was also among the first and most outspoken national figures to oppose the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. Military necessity, he wrote, will "never erase from our minds the simple truth that we, of all civilized nations...did not hesitate to employ the most destructive weapon of all times indiscriminately against men, women, and children."