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."
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."
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."