The recent death of Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley inspired a lot of commentary. His friends and admirers mostly wrote about him in personal terms. His enemies generally used the opportunity to settle old scores now that he is unable to respond. However, no one that I read really put Bartley's work into historical context. Many readers too young to remember the era in which he had his greatest influence were probably left wondering why so many people thought he was an important person.
In 1972, when Bartley became editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, the conservative movement in America was moribund. After reasserting a measure of control over the Republican Party in 1964, with the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater, conservatives had been pushed aside once again by Lyndon Johnson's aggressive liberalism and the selfish pragmatism of Richard Nixon. America was losing the Vietnam War while at the same time the Soviet Union was reaching the pinnacle of its military power. Simultaneously, the economy was falling apart, with stagflation--that awful combination of slow growth and inflation--well on its way.
Conservatives were greatly distressed by these developments, but were powerless to do anything about them. Congress had large majorities of Democrats. Academia was utterly dominated by liberals. Almost all economists were Keynesians who thought taxes and the money supply were matters of no economic importance. There were just two conservative think tanks, the Hoover Institution at Stanford and the American Enterprise Institute, both of which were much less well known and far smaller than they are today.
There was no Internet, no talk radio, and but three television channels carrying national news--all of which spouted the same liberal line. There were just two national magazines with a consistent conservative viewpoint, National Review and Human Events, which combined probably reached fewer than 100,000 people.
In short, there was no place where conservatives could get their ideas out and have them seriously considered. It was often joked that the entire conservative movement could fit into a good-sized living room in those days.
It was in this atmosphere that Bartley took over the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. It was the largest circulation newspaper in the United States and the only one in those days with national distribution. Anyone living anywhere in the country could generally get same-day delivery of the Journal, giving it enormous influence. Although its editorial page had always been conservative, it was a rather bland, unfocused sort of conservatism. Its main concerns were the budget deficit and labor unions.
Beginning in 1974, Bartley began opening his page to a broad range of intellectuals who developed what are now called supply-side economics and neoconservatism. He recruited a board of contributors, with respected intellectuals like Irving Kristol, Martin Feldstein and James Q. Wilson, who would write for the Journal once a month or more. Bartley also brought in aggressive young editorial writers like Jude Wanniski to serve on his staff, as well as publishing op-ed articles by then-unknown economists like Arthur Laffer, Paul Craig Roberts, Richard Rahn and Robert Mundell.
Journal editorials became must reading for every right-leaning policy analyst in Washington. This was not so much because they reflected a conservative viewpoint, which had always been the case, but because one actually got news and information from them that would never have seen the light of day otherwise. Bartley and his minions always thought of themselves as reporters first and editorialists second. This provided a sharpness and immediacy to Journal editorials that is still exceptional and continues under Bartley's successor, Paul Gigot.
It is hard to explain how important this was at the time. Today, anyone who is curious about what conservatives think can tune in to Rush Limbaugh or watch Fox News or read the web sites of the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, National Center for Policy Analysis and an almost infinite number of other sources of news and analysis from a conservative viewpoint. But in the 1970s, none of these existed. The Journal editorial page was a beacon light in the darkness.
Bartley changed the focus, tone and style of the Journal editorial page in ways that were quite profound--intellectually, politically and journalistically. It became the principal outlet for serious analysis of public policy from a conservative perspective, especially on economics and national security. It is inconceivable to me that Ronald Reagan could have been elected president in 1980 without the intellectual foundation that was established in the 1970s by the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
The world would be a very different place today if Bob Bartley had not been the person he was or done the things he did. There are very few people in history about whom that can be said.