David Lawrence: A Profile

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

David Lawrence.

David Lawrence.


Yet near the end of his life, Lawrence came to see integration as inevitable and repeatedly called for patience and calm on both sides, as "members of all races have an equal obligation to maintain peace inside America."

A deeply religious man (he was the only nonsenator allowed at the Senate's weekly prayer breakfasts), Lawrence abhorred communism with an extraordinary zeal. The spread of leftist regimes in the early 1950s in Central and South America, the Soviet atomic bomb, and the Korean War—along with the case of a suspected spy on his staff—instilled in Lawrence an abiding fear of communist infiltration. "Why are the efforts to...spread the truth about the worst conspiracy in the history of the United States met with false cries about 'witch hunts' and 'hysteria'?" he asked. "Only the guilty need have any fear."

In foreign policy, Lawrence believed there could be no accommodation to or negotiation with Communist governments. "I am not willing to see us enter into any 'deal' or 'pay any price' for a Red Chinese or Soviet signature, which on the record would not be worth the paper it is written on," he wrote to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an adviser to presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who advocated nuclear disarmament treaties.

Power of print. Although a confirmed disciple of the printed word, Lawrence was among the earliest to explore radio. One of the first political commentators on NBC radio in the mid-1920s, Lawrence soon began turning down public appearances to concentrate fully on writing. "When I have anything to say on public questions, I surely have a medium adequate for my purpose," he wrote CBS News's Fred Friendly in 1962, declining his offer for a one-hour prime-time news program. Friendly later wrote that his failure to persuade Lawrence to appear on television was "one of the disappointments of my life."

An often fanatical advocate of free speech, he chided Congress for censuring McCarthy because it infringed on the senator's First Amendment right. And he lambasted broadcasters for agreeing to a voluntary code of topics that could be discussed over the airwaves. "You've lost sight of the fundamental tradition which is the only one that needs to be followed, and that is that the press has never been willing to become subservient to the government or argue that [using public airwaves] constitutes the right of the government to police the press," he wrote CBS chief William Paley in 1943.

Lawrence owned no stocks or bonds, fearing conflicts of interest or the appearance thereof. Yet he became wealthy enough that he gave extensively to a wide range of charities—the United Negro College Fund, a children's hospital, and Roman Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, and Methodist institutions around Washington. He founded the White House Correspondents' Association and helped reorganize the then struggling American University. When he parted with a business, as he did with the Bureau of National Affairs and U.S. News in 1947, he sold it to his employees. He gave his house and a 650-acre spread in Virginia to the state as a park.

On Feb. 11, 1973, Lawrence, then 84 years old and living in Florida, had typed his column for the day and just finished a phone call with U.S. News about the future of the magazine. He died of a heart attack 10 minutes later. Lawrence did not "set the river of print on fire," said Krock at his funeral. "But it helps greatly to keep that river clean, and sustain the flow of reliable information that serves our government process.... I know he never wrote a petty line."