Nice Guy, Wrong Job

January 1, 1999, brought with it a noteworthy change in Miami's civic landscape: David Lawrence, Jr., took leave of 1 Herald Plaza. In his nine years as boss man at the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, he held an exalted position of influence in this town, and as we know, he was not at all shy about exerting it. Now that he's stepped down, it seems fitting to ponder the legacy of this man who has cared so deeply about our community and tried so assiduously to improve it. Besides that, it's been way too long since I last stuck my nose in Dave Lawrence's business.

From what I can tell, Lawrence left behind not one but two distinct legacies: one admirable, the other abominable. And different as they may be, both seem to have sprung from the same sources: his elemental urge to do good and his complete misreading of Miami.

Following the announcement this past summer that Lawrence was resigning as publisher, many prominent community members were inspired to publicly praise him. In those heartfelt expressions of gratitude are revealed the admirable part of Lawrence's divided legacy.

From Florida's governor and two U.S. senators to schools superintendent Roger Cuevas and MDCC president Eduardo Padron, from black activist-attorney H.T. Smith to publicist Gerald Schwartz, the sentiment was the same: With Lawrence's resignation, Miami will have lost a valuable and trusted community leader, a man widely known for his personal integrity, his commitment to fairness, and his boundless energy.

This was not just hype, either. From the day he landed in Miami, Lawrence set about meeting every mover and shaker he could, then vigorously plunged into the formidable task of mending all that wasn't right in this irascible town. He took a quick look around and concluded that Miami had been driven to dysfunction by bitter racial and ethnic rivalries, and that the only hope for the community's survival (and not coincidentally the survival of his newspapers) was to heal the wounds caused by suspicion and jealousy, which had been fueled by ignorance and misunderstanding.

Anyone who worked with him on his various projects (United Way, the former Center for the Fine Arts, the drive to save Overtown's St. Francis Xavier Catholic School), or for that matter anyone who simply read his Sunday columns, quickly came to see that this was a man with a purpose. Even I took note, describing him in these pages seven years ago as a wide-eyed missionary plopped down among jungle heathens.

I, of course, was being sarcastic. And who could blame me? Mockery was the only sensible response to a journalist whose entreaties for tolerance (expressed with embarrassing inarticulateness in his columns) gave new meaning to the word maudlin. (In his first dizzying year on the job he repeatedly implored us to "... reach out to each other for better understanding ... [and] work harder to be understood," while he ardently promised to be "sensitive and compassionate, to serve all the people of the community ..., [to] contribute to healing and not to divisiveness.")

Countless others, however, sincerely appreciated the zeal Lawrence brought to this thankless job of social reconciliation. In a letter to the Herald published shortly after the August 4 resignation announcement, businessman Teo Babun conveyed the feelings of many Miamians. "Dave Lawrence," he wrote, "masterfully took the time to understand this community and then proceeded to take a leadership role on everything important and meaningful. He leaves a legacy of care, understanding, and concern for everything that stood for good in our community." Renowned fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco put it more succinctly: Lawrence, he wrote, was a South Florida rarity, "an honest man in a public place."

That sort of fawning adulation of a powerful man (never without his own agenda) tends to make me shudder, but in the minds of many others, it simply reflects a well-earned legacy of Lawrence's impassioned commitment to social harmony. At the very least, it speaks volumes about the quality of leadership this town has produced in the last decade.

It does not, however, address Lawrence's day job.
Which takes us to the other facet of his legacy, the abominable part. I don't really expect someone like Ferdie Pacheco to analyze Lawrence's accomplishments as helmsman of the Herald and El Nuevo, even though Pacheco is likely to be affected far longer and more profoundly by the mess Lawrence left behind at 1 Herald Plaza than by anything he may have accomplished as a civic do-gooder. I, on the other hand, can claim a long history of evaluating Dave Lawrence and his newspapers. (No, no one appointed me to the job. I simply saw an opening and jumped in.)

Some may disagree with my contention that Lawrence badly flubbed it as a publishing executive, even though the evidence is overwhelming that he did. One aspect of his tenure, however, is indisputable: He was never able to achieve the kind of financial performance demanded by his Knight Ridder bosses. Regardless of whether those demands were realistic, they twice led to crises under Lawrence's watch. Four years ago severe cutbacks resulted in, among other things, the Herald abandoning its global ambitions and retreating to its current status as a regional paper. (That sorry episode was chronicled by New Times staff writer Jim DeFede in "The Incredible Shrinking Herald," June 8, 1995.) Overall during Lawrence's reign, the Herald closed bureaus in Beijing, Berlin, Atlanta, and New York City. Several satellite offices in Florida were also shut down. Now on the chopping block are the sole remaining foreign outposts, Managua and Bogota.

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin