Clare Boothe Luce and Henry Luce in New York City, 1954 (Library of Congress/New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection)

The clattering sound of typewriters—“slapsplapslap…slap…slapslap….slapslap…ching!”—can be heard in veteran Time magazine essayist Lance Morrow’s new book. But the more insistent sound in this slim volume is the thud, thud, thud of name dropping. If you were born in this century, you might need a scorecard to know who the players are.

To be fair, Morrow describes himself as a kind of Zelig. He has known—or at least encountered, read, or reported on—a great many powerful people and influential writers. Just a partial list of the major and minor characters who make an appearance in The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism, includes: Time publisher and editor Henry Luce, his glamorous and accomplished second wife Clare Boothe Luce, Franklin D. Roosevelt, JFK (a careless PT boat skipper), Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Elie Wiesel, Joe DiMaggio, Norman Mailer, Mary McGrory, Robert Caro, Alger Hiss, Joseph McCarthy, William F. Buckley Jr., Carl Bernstein, Henry Kissinger, New York Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal, Allen Ginsberg (Morrow “detested” his poetry), and an interminably rambling Mikhail Gorbachev.

I could go on; Morrow certainly does. Thucydides and Herodotus are also summoned on stage as archetypal journalists, indispensable “storytellers,” and presumably a reminder of the value of a good pre–Vatican II Jesuit education. Morrow attended Gonzaga College High School in Washington D.C. before Harvard. He graduated from Gonzaga two years after the tribal Catholic brawler Pat Buchanan. In addition to teaching Latin and Greek, the “Jebbies” did not hesitate to discipline unruly students with a biblical rod of iron, or a fist. It was a different time. Much of The Noise of Typewriters is also, as Morrow’s subtitle suggests, about “a different time.”

After college and a brief stint at the Washington Evening Star, where he worked with columnist Mary McGrory as well as Carl Bernstein of All the President’s Men fame, Morrow joined Time in 1965. He stayed for forty years, and his new book is an apologia for that magazine’s partisan journalism in defense of capitalism, liberal democracy, anti-communism, the Republican Party, and middle-class American values. Morrow laments the loss of the social and cultural consensus of the 1940s and ’50s, an era Time’s publisher evangelically named “The American Century.” The emergence of a prosperous and seemingly homogeneous American middle class was celebrated and to some extent shaped by “Harry” Luce’s artful and wildly successful magazines, which included Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, as well as Time. (Morrow neglects to mention that Life, once the most popular magazine in America, was as much Clare Boothe Luce’s idea as Harry’s.)

Luce’s magazine empire made him a fortune, placing him at the center of cultural and political power. Time embraced a “great man” approach to journalism, exemplified by the magazine’s much-anticipated and debated “Man of the Year” issue. Luce made a point of almost always putting a person on the cover of Time. The magazine’s profiles and trend issues helped readers make sense of events as well as their own lives and aspirations. That, Morrow believes, is what good journalism should do. Journalists are unavoidably storytellers and mythmakers. “Legends endure. Legends are memorable. Everything vanishes into the country of myth,” Morrow writes.

His new book is an apologia for that magazine’s partisan journalism in defense of capitalism, liberal democracy, anti-communism, the Republican Party, and middle-class American values.

Luce (1898–1967) was born in China, the son of American Presbyterian missionaries. In that sense he came by his evangelistic zeal, for both America and traditional values, naturally. A scholarship student at Hotchkiss and Yale, he was an epitome of the American “self-made” man. Under his hands-on editorship, Time Inc.’s properties brought an unabashed Christian perspective to issues of the day. Luce was a staunch East Coast Republican, fervently anti-communist, an opponent of FDR and the New Deal, worshipful of Churchill, obsessed with the question of “who lost China,” and an unrepentant advocate for U.S. intervention in Vietnam. “The right war in the right place at the right time,” was how Time justified that tragic blunder, a catastrophe that exposed the fallacy of thinking that America knows what’s best for everyone else. Morrow admires Luce’s sincerity and “piratical authenticity” and for the most part dismisses his legions of liberal critics as naïve or, worse, soft on the threat of communism.

Morrow initially had doubts about Luce’s overbearing editorial influence, but time and events softened his assessment. Luce presided over “America’s long golden age of magazines,” and we are the poorer for living in a fragmented media world, where the idea of journalistic “gatekeepers” is scoffed at as elitist. I suspect he is right about that. When a thousand different voices demand our attention, our interest and focus quickly flag. When Morrow started at Time, bylines were rare; what appeared in the magazine was a collective effort. But that collaborative (and hierarchical) process had its compensations. “I was a voice in the chorus,” he writes, noting that President Lyndon Johnson waited up at night to receive an advance copy of the magazine.

I knew that my story would be read by every mayor and governor in America, by every senator and congressman, every justice of the Supreme Court—by the president of each corporation, by all who were in power in America, or wished to be in power; and by every lawyer, every doctor and dentist, and by their patients in the waiting room.

The acquisition and use of such political and cultural power is a major theme in The Noise of Typewriters. Beyond Luce’s “genius” as an editor and creator of magazines, what Morrow most admires is perhaps Luce’s determination to leverage his influence in pursuit of his declared aims. In that context, for example, he argues that John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the groundbreaking New Yorker report on the aftermath of the atomic bombing, was ultimately “fatuous,” distorted by the “defect of its own simplicity.” In Morrow’s account, Luce’s journalism avoided such sanctimony.

Hersey was originally a Time reporter. Although no Communist, he was not clear-eyed about the evil of communism, or so Morrow contends. That myopia compelled Hersey to see the bombing of Hiroshima as “a great sin” rather than an ambiguous and unavoidable moral choice. A sterner cost-benefit analysis, Morrow believes, is required in judging such military or political decisions. He suggests that what the Japanese did in the “rape of Nanking” was arguably more abhorrent than the use of the atomic bomb.

Luce had recognized Hersey’s gifts as a writer and thinker and offered to make him editor-in-chief of Time. The offer was declined. “Hersey did not want the power; he was appalled by it. I suspect that Luce found his attitude incomprehensible,” Morrow writes. “Luce’s deepest convictions revolved around the dilemmas and temptations of power.” He understood temporal power in a Christian context. Man is obligated to use power to pursue “the Good.” Unintended consequences are inevitable, and a refusal to act and shoulder the burden of responsibility is the greater moral failing. To be sure, Morrow concedes, “the powerless did not seem to interest [Luce] much. It was a flaw in him—a missing circuit.” Luce was a Yale-trained classicist, and in that sense his understanding of virtue was “less Christian than Roman or Greek.” Morrow speculates that Luce thought “moaning over the sufferings of others” was a kind of “condescension.” There may be some truth in that sentiment, but if Hersey’s attention to the suffering of Hiroshima’s mostly innocent victims is condescending, perhaps the world needs less classical virtue and more Christian “condescension.”

Under Luce’s hands-on editorship, Time Inc.’s properties brought an unabashed Christian perspective to issues of the day.


The Noise of Typewriters comprises thirty-one short chapters. Consequently, Morrow’s argument about the nature and value of journalism, especially its religious and “metaphysical” warrant, is more gestured at than sustained. He believes journalism at its best helps us make sense of the world and our place in it, which is a theological task as well. Time was scrupulous about facts and statistics, but to make sense of the facts you need context, and you can’t provide context without making moral or even religious judgments. Time explained “what it all meant,” Morrow writes. “Time has always worked in a zone somewhat beyond journalism. We justified that by claiming to be moral in our judgments of the news.”

A cranky antagonism toward Baby Boomers is threaded throughout this book. For Morrow, the sixties remain “the seedbed of later miseries and heresies.” In that vein, he dismisses contemporary critiques of American exceptionalism. The critics who see only racism, white supremacism, “and all that” are blind to the “Emersonian idealism’” and “innocence” of Luce’s American Century. “There were giants in the earth in those days,” he writes of the media mogul’s midcentury allies and adversaries. The Boomers, exemplified of course by the Clintons, “brought a certain impatient depthlessness to the work. They lacked resonance.”

I suspect there are worse failings than a lack of “resonance”—an instinctive indifference to the suffering of the poor might be one. Resonance requires hard surfaces, and (we) Boomers came of age in a culture and economy where “everything solid melts into air”—and now into digital algorithms. The moral clarity of the fight against Hitler and the Soviet Union did not exist in Vietnam. Far from it. Giants stumbled badly in those days. The U.S. economy, which won World War II and was an engine of stability and widely shared prosperity in the 1950s and much of the ’60s, has careened from one crisis to the next for the past fifty years.

Boomers have contributed to that chaos, to be sure. But if Trump is any indication, what has survived of Luce’s fabled mid-century American consensus is finally unraveling in calamitous fashion. What Morrow cannot bring himself to admit is that there was something flawed and self-deceiving in the myth of America’s providential status all along, and Boomers were not wrong to question it. Partly as a result of that questioning, legally protected racial segregation and the war in Vietnam were ended and a greater measure of equality for women won. Those developments have a certain resonance for many people. More to the point, no single generation is responsible for any given historical moment. There is enough guilt to go around, regardless of age.

I share much of Morrow’s skepticism and exasperation with today’s “woke” journalistic and intellectual shibboleths. But it is not illuminating or helpful to attribute our current difficulties mainly to the excesses of America’s critics at home, most of whom still believe in the country’s governing principles and promise. “Giants” might have walked the earth back in the day, but that didn’t stop Luce from hating FDR, uncritically worshiping Churchill, divorcing the mother of his children, or experimenting with LSD. Attending Time’s seventy-fifth birthday party at Radio City Music Hall in 1998 (where John Kennedy Jr. walks elegiacally away in the “cold and rain”), Morrow admits to feeling like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He’s at least right about that. There’s too much Scrooge in this very short book. “Never be certain of anything too quickly,” is one of the fundamental rules of journalism for Morrow. Unfortunately, it is a rule more affirmed than observed in The Noise of Typewriters.

The Noise of Typewriters
Remembering Journalism

Lance Morrow 
Encounter Books
$27.99 | 200 pp.

Published in the June 2023 issue: View Contents

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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