David Lawrence: A Profile

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

David Lawrence.

David Lawrence.

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But it was the often mundane mechanics of government that best captured Lawrence's imagination—the same material that had captivated him as a 12-year-old reading the Congressional Record at his Buffalo library. "I was fascinated," he said. "I used to go to that library afternoon after afternoon to read it." His life's work was the product of that early obsession.

A self-described "conservative liberal," Lawrence believed more strongly than most that the editorial and news departments should be separated not just by a wall but by a moat as well. He never attended the news meetings of his own magazine, and the first time staffers were allowed to see his column was when it appeared in print. New York Times Washington correspondent Arthur Krock once called U.S.News & World Report the "unadorned presentation of the facts on national and international affairs." Any expression of opinion, he said, "was confined to Lawrence's signed editorial."

And Lawrence worked hard to keep it that way, often surveying readers for feedback. "I think you make too many damned excuses for the New Dealers," wrote Clare Hoffman, a member of Congress from Michigan. At the same time, one of Hoffman's colleagues called Lawrence a "Herbert Hoover man." In 1938, worried over accusations of bias, the magazine commissioned a review of its news content, finding that while the Lawrence editorials were nearly universally opposed to the New Deal, the news pages tilted slightly in favor of FDR's agenda.

As an admirer of Wilson, Lawrence deplored the expansion of the federal government that accompanied the election of Roosevelt—"stumbling into socialism," he called it. ("I'm the only Democrat left in this town," he once told Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.) He opposed the federal government's forays into labor relations and the increased regulation that resulted from the interstate commerce clause, both of which he regarded as unconstitutional. The United Mine Workers dubbed him "Popgun Lawrence" for his relentless sniping at rules that strengthened the position of organized labor.

Ticker tape. Lawrence, who was married with four children, rarely took vacations and was a confirmed "news junkie" long before the term entered the lexicon; he often had bits of news ticker tape and draft copy falling out of his suit pockets and his ear glued to the telephone. In an age of memos, carbon copies, and prodigious letter writing, he always ended correspondence with the succinct "DL." Yet his relentless obsession with hard news, viewed from his perch inside the Beltway, seems to have distanced him from the human suffering of Vietnam and personal dramas of the civil rights movement. "I am concerned with principles, not men," he said. Likewise, it was adherence to process—apparently more than overt racism—that fed Lawrence's fierce opposition to public school integration. The Constitution "teaches respect for the minority, and so long as the minority among us conforms to the process of the Constitution, we should confine our efforts to outarguing them and outvoting them rather than suppression," he told an audience in 1920.

When President Dwight Eisenhower directed federal troops to enforce the court-ordered integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Lawrence wrote in a stinging U.S. News editorial: "It is not too late to return to the normal processes of law enforcement in America and to rely on the good sense of a community whose feelings have understandably been aggravated by an unlawful use of federal troops."

His views on the primacy of the Constitution, however, did not extend to the whole document. Lawrence wrote frequently that the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law and provided the basis for civil rights legislation, was not legally ratified and was therefore "null and void." "God created men of different colors, just as he created birds of different colors. We know the old saying of 'birds of a feather flock together.' " Desegregation, he wrote in a letter to segregationist Charles Bloch, "would not be possible if the Constitution as written was upheld."