The White House last week gave a tip of the national hat to a journalist, bestowing on Robert Bartley the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A medal for a journalist, some might tempted to exclaim. How about something more fitting, like a swift kick in the pants?
Wait, wait, not that kind of journalist! This is Bob Bartley, editor emeritus of The Wall Street Journal. Without him, and his indispensable editorial page, the state of freedom in the modern world might be more parlous even than we acknowledge it to be. The economy might be humming less brightly. Who knows, Hillary might be president ... !
Kindly indulge me as I talk shop: briefly, I promise. With almost four decades of journalism under my belt, I take a high view not only of our profession's rights but of its obligations. The First Amendment does not confer on us freedom for freedom's sake; rather it is for the sake of allowing varied brains to wrap themselves around important ideas, not to mention totally unimportant ones. This obligation necessitates idea entrepreneurs of Bartley-like qualities.
Not that the Journal editorial page, under Bartley's great predecessor, Vermont Connecticut Royster, had been some intellectual Sahara. Nonetheless, under the new kid, from 1972 forward, the page became Idea Central for American -- shall we say -- conservatives.
For conservatives? Those dinosaurs? What about liberals, true-blue and long-dominant in politics? The fact was, in 1972, outside Bill Buckley's too-little-read National Review, liberal ideas enjoyed almost unlimited space to circulate. It was conservative ideas, keyed to freedom and moral responsibility, that needed ventilation and development. This space they got, conferred by one of the nation's two foremost newspapers, the other being the immaculately liberal New York Times.
It was fascinating to watch Bob Bartley and his team fashion a single page (not counting the adjoining letters page) into a journalistic force: a bazaar where the country's great public concerns -- a sagging economy and sagging post-Vietnam morale -- could be advertised and illuminated by the country's great public thinkers.
It wasn't a matter just of introducing an idea and then leaving it to strut and fret its hour upon the stage. Bartley, as editorial page editor, was a bulldog. An idea that was right was worth a fight. Persuaded by an editorial page staffer, Jude Wanniski, that "supply-side" tax cuts could reinvigorate the economy, Bartley, and the page, campaigned tirelessly for just such cuts. And, whaddaya know, under Ronald Reagan, we got them. Just as advertised, they generated work and investment, to the eventual profit even of the U.S. Treasury.