Robert Bartley: A model page, a model journalist

Bill Murchison
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Posted: Dec 09, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

In the '70s, just two newspaper editorial pages seemed to understand the necessity of addressing the energy crisis via free-market remedies. One page was The Dallas Morning News', for which I then wrote; the other was Bob Bartley's. He probably never heard of us at the time, but his invisible comradeship helped keep us going.

With equal distinction -- and eventual success, thanks to Ronald Reagan -- the Journal opposed Soviet communism and helped focus political minds on the need to rebuild our post-Vietnam military.

No human enterprise is on the money every day. In the '90s, the Journal editorial page seemed sometimes to have a weird fixation on Bill Clinton (different in kind from Clinton's fixation on himself). But about the same time, the honesty and courage of staffer Dorothy Rabinowitz were transfiguring the editorial page. Again and again, Rabinowitz slammed the national witch hunt for day-care operators identified as child abusers by the children themselves, children duly prepped for the task by adults. Her efforts in behalf of operators unfairly imprisoned finally won her a Pulitzer to match Bartley's -- his own awarded for economic commentary.

At 66, and semi-retired, the "old" guy still writes on Mondays for America's model editorial page. To make the acquaintance of a model American journalist, read Robert Bartley. Assuming you don't already.