NEW YORK CITY -- I do not know what you were doing the other
night, but I was listening to the finest public address that I have heard on
history in my adult life. It was the valedictory address of Robert L.
Bartley, for 30 years the Napoleon Bonaparte of The Wall Street Journal's
Like Napoleon's armies the Journal's editorial page has marched
across enemy terrain, conquering. Thirty years after Bartley's war began,
some of the enemy's structures remain standing, but within them -- within
the media, the universities, the bureaucracies -- there is either acceptance
of the Bartley line or chill knee-knocking doubt and, occasionally, denial.
Generally, however, Bartley's enemies have been routed.
His credo -- and that of the Journal -- "free markets and free
people," presides where once the welfare state, the "mixed economy" and
post-World War II appeasement dominated. For a certitude, there are
reactionary holdouts in the editorial sanctum sanctorum of such fussy old
organs as The New York Times and in various faculty clubs, where the young
left-wing profs ride in on skate boards, their baseball caps turned
backward, as the aging profs from the 1960s and 1970s roost in reveries of
the Vietnam War and conjure with visions of Saddam Hussein clothed in the
pajamas of Ho Chi Minh.
Yet from the American electorate to the halls of power in
government and in business, people pretty much think the way Bob Bartley
does -- cut taxes, emphasize economic growth, send the best military on
earth against the warlike. Or did Bartley's critics miss this month's
historic midterm elections?
The other night, Bartley packed more intelligent insight and
historic awareness of the last third of the 20th century into a 20-minute
address than I would have thought possible. I know of no historian or
philosopher who could have done as well -- but then, as the historian John
Lukacs has written, "All human knowledge is inevitably personal and
participatory." Bartley had
participated in many of
the events he was discussing, from what he called "the military balance and
competition with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, (to) the economic dilemma in
the 1980s, (to) the 1990s moral and ethical issues in government." The first
two of these three momentous issues went almost precisely the way Bartley
wanted them to go, the last -- the Clintons' abuse of power -- will go
Bartley's way or our democracy will go the way of the banana republic.
Titling his address "Thirty Years of Progress -- Mostly,"
Bartley cited a plenitude of serious problems this nation has faced over the
decades and explained their resolution, usually their peaceful and
prospering resolution. He seems himself to be amazed by something we
Americans rarely note in our history -- to wit, the recuperative power of
Henry Kissinger, who introduced Bartley (two others preceded
Kissinger -- supply-side economic advocate Jack Kemp and that stalwart
defender of the rule of law even during the corrupt 1990s, Solicitor General
Ted Olson), explained why Bartley can only be amazed by the extent of the
country's recuperation, not by its actual recuperation. Said Kissinger,
Bartley places his faith in the American people.
I cannot do justice in this small space to the enormous
intellectual triumph of Bartley's exposition of the past 30 years. He
excavated the most significant public problems the country has faced,
explained their interrelatedness and their resolution. His address appeared
in published form on the Nov. 20 op-ed page of the Journal. Every serious
citizen will want to read it. I shall, however, quote its concluding lines,
for those who want to know how America gets through and will get through the
Starting in 1972, "we did overcome communism, stagflation,
Watergate and Vietnam. For all our momentary problems, at the turn of the
century the Soviet empire had collapsed, democracy was spreading to unlikely
places, and the American free-enterprise model was established as the route
to development. Even with today's problems, the United States has no serious
rival. In the sweep of this history, today's problems loom as another set of
momentary nuisances. What I think I've learned over 30 years is that in this
society, rationality wins out, progress happens, and problems have
solutions." That is the consequence of a free society based, of course, on
the rule of law.
This may have been Bartley's valedictory address, but he is not
going away. He will continue to influence the Journal as editor emeritus and
with his Monday column that appears weekly on its op-ed page. The editorial
page itself is populated with like-minded journalists and will remain the
strongest in the country.
Bartley will continue his regular appearances on the best
television panel show aired nationally, CNBC's "WSJ Editorial Board with
Stuart Varney," and from the brilliant historical excursus he delivered the
other night it is clear he has the ideas and energy for a series of
important books. And one other thing: He will continue to cover the world
from America's cultural and financial capital, New York. His connections
will remain unsurpassed.