Memo To: The World at Large
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Bartley’s 25th
Bob Bartley himself doesn’t quite remember on what day he officially became Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. When I asked him at a Christmas party a few weeks ago if I was going to be invited to his 25th anniversary celebration, he seemed perplexed, then said it was only 24 years, then realized that, yes, it was 25, and it happened sometime between Christmas 1971 and New Year’s Day of 1972. At a mere 33 years of age, he became one of the most important and powerful opinion leaders in the world. Of course, he didn’t realize that’s what happened. It was not like Harry Truman saying it felt like the stars and the moon fell on him, when he learned of FDR’s death. Bob was too young to realize that he was too young and inexperienced for the job, given the awesome things that were going to happen in the world on his early watch. If he had known what was ahead, he might have frozen when the big guys at Dow Jones & Co. offered him the job. The biggest of those guys was the late Vermont Connecticut Royster, one of the giants of American journalism, a powerhouse at Dow Jones, who had spotted Bartley a few years earlier as the man who should be groomed to succeed Joe Evans, who would be retiring in 1986 when he turned 65. Alas, Joe Evans died suddenly at age 50, just before Christmas 1971, and there was Bartley next in line, 15 years early.
Bob didn’t know he was being groomed, only that the wise men had smiled upon him, to the extent of cutting his anchor to the editorial-page office at 60 Broad Street, which was then the Journal’s home. Royster had suggested to Evans that Bartley be sent to Washington, to learn the ways of the world’s center of political power -- as opposed to financial power. It was during this Washington sojourn that I met Bartley, sometime early in 1969, when I was writing the Washington column for The National Observer, the Dow Jones newsweekly. He introduced himself to me by way of a complimentary note on something I had written about anti-ballistic missiles. It was the only complimentary note I had ever received from another journalist to that point in my life, and I cannot recall another. This alone tells you something about Bartley. He is different.
I’ve written elsewhere, in some issue of the MediaGuide years ago, that Bartley is the most important journalist of our time. In an earlier era there was Walter Lippmann. The New York Times never really had a contender, excepting perhaps Scotty Reston in his prime. Books and movies have been made about Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, whose career has largely overlapped Bartley’s. But Bradlee’s strength was not as a journalist, but as a manager of journalists. For the purety and strength of his communication skills at the top of the conservative Establishment of the most powerful nation in the history of the world, Bartley stands alone. When Ben Bradlee set his attack dogs, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, onto the trail of Richard Nixon, his achievement was enormous and cannot be discounted. Where was Bartley? He was asking his staff for a volunteer to defend Nixon, on the grounds that even a President who is headed toward doom deserves a devil’s advocate in the press. Not knowing any better, I volunteered. It was an incredible experience, watching the entire media universe, left and right, weighing in against Nixon, and Bartley sticking by his commitment to defend his devil’s advocate until all arguments had been disposed of.
If I asked you if Bartley enjoyed defending Nixon over Watergate, I would say not a bit more than he enjoyed prosecuting President Clinton over Whitewater. In both, he acted out of a sense of duty, of responsibility. It was expected of him, and to the degree he did it as well as he could, he felt only satisfaction, never really enjoyment. If he enjoyed anything, it was his playing with the intersection of numbers and ideas. In college in Iowa he had majored in statistics, not quite a science, but surely a discipline. It was this discipline, I think, that enabled him to preside so successfully over the supply-side economic revolution and the strategems of America’s foreign-policy Establishment in the completion of the Cold War. Bartley knew exactly the throw-weight of an ICBM it would take to destroy an SS-19 or how big a tax cut it would take to pay for it. The Gipper and RLB worked in tandem. These were his heroic accomplishments.
Would the last 25 years have been much different if Bartley had not been in training 25 years ago when fate called him early to a pinnacle of power? Silly question. I was only around for the first six years, but that was long enough to watch Bartley lay the foundations for an epic intellectual assault on the conventional economic wisdom of both neo-Keynesianism and monetarism -- and at the same time erect the intellectual framework for the final assault on Soviet communism. If you don’t know how hard it is to hold the confidence of an army without the kind of strategic discipline Bartley brought to these twin goals of peace and prosperity, you will dismiss his contribution as peripheral chattering. For those of us who thoroughly believe it was the combination of Reaganomics and the Reagan defense buildup that broke Moscow’s will, it is impossible to imagine it all happening without Bartley. Only when you’ve lived at the pinnacle of such power and observed how critical it was for a small number of revolutionaries and geopolitical intellects to find shelter with Bartley and his editorial pages can you appreciate his importance. There are a great many other men and women who pulled and hauled along these same lines during the last 25 years to get us where we are today, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, but everyone one of them I think would recognize the depth of RLB’s contribution. And because he has been at it 25 years tomorrow, it is a good time to toast him tonight.