TCS Daily


The Quiet Revolutionary

By Richard Miniter - December 12, 2003 12:00 AM

One of the extraordinary things about Robert L. Bartley, who for thirty years was the editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, is that he had legions of admirers -- few of whom could pick his face out of a crowd.

 

Bartley did not become influential or famous through any conventional means. He rarely appeared on television. He gave relatively few speeches. He was not a regular on the talk radio circuit or a star in the blogosphere. Nor was he vaulted to popular attention by public-relations men, publicity stunts or fawning articles in the nation's press. He did it the old fashioned way: He developed an intense following simply through the power of his ideas.

 

And the ideas that Bartley championed -- which he summarized as "free men and free markets" -- were hardly popular at the time. In the dark days of the 1970s even "conservative" Republican President Richard M. Nixon proclaimed "We're all Keynesians now."

 

The Modern Editorial Page

 

And what ideas! Bartley had ideas about journalism, economics and politics -- and he had the guts to give them a go. Bartley essentially invented the idea of the modern editorial page. Before 1972, when Bartley became editor, most papers ran unsigned editorials, letters, a few syndicated columnists and that's it. As for those unsigned editorials -- the official voices of the newspaper -- they were full of opinion and humor, perhaps, but no reporting, no new facts. Bartley wanted editorial writers to find facts, preferably new or overlooked ones. How else can you persuade someone? That meant making phone calls and going places. It meant hard work. The idea of a reported editorial (known internally as a "rando," short for Review AND Outlook) was a signature Bartley innovation and it gave the editorials of the Wall Street Journal a unique authority and a new power. Believe it or not, no one had done this before.

 

And while the New York Times invented the "op-ed" in the Nixon era, Bartley's response was the "editorial page feature." These were bylined articles that might have looked like op-eds, but did not read like them. These features were rarely written by professional columnists -- those paid opinion-slingers -- but by outsiders who had developed an expertise and gathered the facts to present interesting and important arguments. This made the Journal's features a must-read. Again, no one had done this before either.

 

In these two small but significant ways, Bartley changed the journalism trade. The taciturn Midwesterner had gotten America to give facts and ideas pride of place over rhetoric and wordplay. If this were all that Bartley had accomplished, it would be worthy enough monument.

 

But, as it happened, Bartley was just getting started.

 

In the parlance of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, there is a category of editorial feature known as "dull but worthy." In the early 1970s, Bartley began identifying dull but worthy ideas. The ideas were "dull" only in the sense that few commentators were willing to study economics (let alone question the Keynesian consensus). But Bartley, along with his first hire, Jude Wanniski, was willing to listen and learn. And, importantly, he wasn't afraid of math.

 

From Michael One to the Reagan Revolution

 

Meeting at a little known restaurant in lower Manhattan called Michael One, Bartley met a growing number of young or dissenting economists. One was a Columbia University economics professor, Robert Mundell. (Mr. Mundell would later be the "father of the euro" -- Europe's new single currency -- and win the Nobel Prize in economics.) In the early 1970s, Mundell was a relative nobody with a career that was going nowhere. But he had brilliant insights. One of his mantras was "the only economy is the world economy." That meant that while U.S. policy could simultaneously penalize petroleum production and subsidize oil consumption through price controls, such policies would ultimately fail because the world market would set the prevailing price. Another element of Mundell's insight about the single global economy was that protectionist barriers would simply punish the nations that taxed themselves to subsidize domestic producers; meanwhile the world market would keep functioning according to a global price mechanism, regardless of how many billions France or Indonesia spent subsidizing or protecting home-grown favorites. While this sounds obvious to us now, it was an heretical thought in the 1970s, when economists believed that somehow competition stopped at national borders or that goods that could be substituted for each other did not actually compete with each other. That meant that the U.S. economy was headed in the wrong direction, retreating behind protectionist walls, subsidizing failing industries like Chrysler, and regulating to death successful ones like IBM. And Bartley wasn't afraid to say it.

 

Inflation was another big problem in the 1970s. For the first time since the American civil war, Americans were suffering from inflation north of five percent, were seeing the value of their wages and savings disappear, creditors lent less because inflation eroded the value of the money to be paid back. Unions demanded double-digit wage increases to stay a step ahead of inflation. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that inflation was simply an increase in price, and if prices could somehow be restrained, inflation would just go away like a bad dream. But Bartley and the economists who became his friends soon began to take on an older, more subtle explanation of inflation -- that it was a function of the money supply. Therefore, money-supply measures (such as M1, M2, M3) could accurately predict, using well-established formulas, future inflation rates. Treating inflation as a problem of excess printing of money meant that the solution to inflation was not what the chattering class recommended (wage and price controls, "excess profits" taxes, and other baleful measures) but the opposite. A freer economy to stimulate growth and higher interest rates to mop up the excess capital. Bartley repeatedly laid out the intellectual case for his position in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Some in business and journalism and academia listened and understood. But many more scoffed. They thought that Bartley had fallen for the old-time free market religion and that modern men, who knew better, realized that his solutions were dangerous and destructive.

 

But, in 1981, a reader and a some-time correspondent of Bartley's was sworn in as president of the United States. Ronald Reagan adopted the ideas advocated by Bartley and the world knows the result -- the longest peace-time expansion of the United States economy in its history up to that point. Reagan arrested inflation and no U.S. president has dared to let it out on parole. Bartley deserves some of the credit for that.

 

At those long dinners at Michael One, Bartley would listen and cross-examine to see the value in what later became known as the supply-side. He published many editorial features by Art Laffer, Richard Rahn, Jude Wanniski, Bruce Bartlett and other supply-siders who argued that tax cuts would spur economic growth and boost government revenue. Bartley was always careful not to say that the "tax cuts would pay for themselves," only that government revenue would increase. And history has consistently shown that income-tax cuts have boosted government revenues. Bartley and the Journal deserve a large dollop of credit for putting and keeping tax cuts on the top of the national agenda for the past two decades.

 

One of the enduring myths about Bartley (and the Wall Street Journal editorial page in general) is that it somehow favors "big business." Bartley never did. If you'd ask him, he would say that he favored free enterprise and he was savvy enough to know that, more often than not, big business is quite happy to collude with big government and big labor against free competition and the little guy. Bartley had the vision to know and the tenacity to say that the future is almost always with open competition and the emerging entrepreneur -- not today's industrial behemoths. Capitalism is not for the rich and if it were, capitalism would not long survive. It has few true friends among the trustfund set. Capitalism's true constituency is among the strivers and the punters, the guys with little money and big ideas, the guys willing to bet their house on a tiny invention in their garage, the women willing to save money in a shoebox for years to take a chance on a new idea. These entrepreneurs willing to roll the dice, take the risks and accept the consequences; they like the revolutionary nature of capitalism and its switchback sense of fortune. And, in America, there are millions of these people. Many read the Journal's editorial page.

 

Legions of Admirers

 

Which brings us back to Bartley's legions of admirers, his many fans who would gladly invite him to dinner but couldn't pick out his face on the street. Many had never seen his face or heard his voice or even saw his name in print. But they knew him, liked him and admired him because he was willing to champion these unfashionable ideas, ideas that just happened to be right, that just happened to save America from stagflation, unemployment, humiliation and hopelessness. And these were ideas they shared. Maybe they didn't know all of the academic curlicues or mathematical complexity that supported Bartley's supply-side ideas, but they liked Bartley for showing them the respect to make a serious intellectual case for those neglected ideas.

 

For many years, I was one of Bartley's admirers. I read the Wall Street Journal editorial page in grade school, high school, college and beyond. I'd never seen Bartley's face. I'd never heard his high-pitched voice nor sat through his sudden silences. But he was a hero to me and it was his example of what journalists could do that led me into journalism.

 

I wasn't alone. On the day that Bartley died, I received e-mails and phone calls from journalists in America and Europe. Here's what Chicago-based journalist Gene Koprowski wrote to me: "His writing and editing were an inspiration to me since college. Not many conservatives in journalism school. ... I can remember being an undergrad, and reading the WSJ edit page in the college newspaper newsroom and being quite the curiosity. This was 1985 or 1986. I learned how to write -- really write -- from that edit page."

 

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Bartley and getting to know him when he hired me as an editorial writer and sent me to Brussels. As it turned out, I was one of the last people Bob ever hired. I can't say that I knew Bartley very well on a personal level. I had had maybe a half-dozen conversations with him. None was particularly deep. Once when I was describing a Saigon hotel, Bartley came up behind me and asked if they still served cocktails on the verandah. It turned out that he had been there in the 1970s. And while others can write about their long and close friendship with Bartley, I think the thing to remember about him was not that he was a good man, a religious man, a pioneering journalist, although all of those things are true. The thing to remember is his ideas and his willingness to take risks for them. That's Bartley's true legacy.

 

There's a convention at the Wall Street Journal editorial page to refer to every man, save the vilest dictators and terrorists, as "Mr.," but after they are dead, to simply refer to them by their last name. Reflecting on the vast reach of Bartley's ideas, it saddened me to pick up the editorial page and, for the first time, to see Bartley's name without the "Mr." I know there were millions of others who felt the same way.

 

Mr. Miniter is the author of "Losing bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror," (Regnery, 2003). He was Wall Street Journal editorial page writer in Europe and a columnist for the editorial page's OpinionJournal.com. His last article for TCS was on the Iraq-Al Qaeda connections.

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