The Magazine

Who Is Robert Bartley?

From the January 13, 2003 issue: The most influential journalist of our time.

Jan 13, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 17 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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Editor's Note: Robert L. Bartley, the distinguished former editor of the Wall Street Journal, died today at 66. Here are two articles about him published previously in The Weekly Standard.

-JVL

WHILE COVERING platform and rules committee hearings in Detroit during the week preceding the 1980 Republican national convention, I put together an informal dinner party of about a dozen politicians and journalists. Clarke Reed, the longtime Mississippi Republican leader, was excited. Bob Bartley would be at the dinner, and Reed wanted to be seated next to him. "He's my hero," said Reed, a senior member of the Republican National Committee and a national mover and shaker in the GOP for the previous two decades. Robert L. Bartley was only 42 years old but had been the Wall Street Journal's editor (actually, editor of the editorial pages) for eight years already and was to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. By then, he had become an authoritative figure for Reed and other conservative activists.

The summer of 1980 was a time of high excitement for these activists. Not only was the Republican convention prepared to nominate Ronald Reagan, but it also was drafting a robust conservative platform calling for a militant foreign policy, tax cuts, and limitations on abortion. The dinner table conversation that night in a Detroit restaurant was intense and heated, with everybody participating--except Bartley. He was silent, and Clarke Reed was disappointed.

Bob Bartley was then what he was on December 31, when he retired as the Journal's editor after 30 years: a shy, soft-spoken Midwesterner whose voice is usually the softest in any crowd. "I'm not a very flashy guy," he has said. Not a familiar face on the television talk show circuit, he has let his keyboard do his talking--in a very loud voice indeed.

John Tebbel, professor emeritus of journalism at New York University, called Bartley "the most influential editorial writer of my time." That was in 1982, when Bartley had been in charge for 10 years. In the 20 years since then, he arguably established himself as the most influential editorial writer of any time.

Newspaper reporters always have held a low opinion of editorial writers, typified by a vulgar joke that I first heard about 50 years ago: Why is writing an editorial like urinating in a blue serge suit? Because it gives you a warm feeling and nobody knows what you've done. That clearly is not true of Bartley, for two very good reasons.

The first reason was set forth by Bartley's weekly column in the Journal December 30, marking the end of his tenure as editor (but not, thankfully, as a columnist): "Journalistically, my proudest boast is that I've run the only editorial page in the country that actually sells newspapers." Indeed, people who are uninterested in markets or even business read the Wall Street Journal because of the pages under Bartley's domain. For years I have noticed Journal readers on morning airline flights turn first to the editorial page.

The second and more important reason is his enormous impact on public policy. Without Bartley and his newspaper, supply-side economics would have been stillborn. His muscular foreign policy sounded the death knell of isolationism on the right. His relentless assaults on Bill Clinton's ethics set the standard for Republicans. He has not permitted conservatives to forget such unpleasant issues as tort reform and school choice.

That has not made Bartley a popular figure with journalism's predominant left wing. Michael Kinsley, once a liberal columnist for Bartley, has accused him of "Stalinist tendencies" and called him a "central cog in the vast right-wing conspiracy" as well as "irresponsible and intellectually dishonest."

While editorial page editors normally comprise a band of brothers who never criticize each other, whatever prominent colleagues say about Bartley is invariably negative. John Oakes, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times, talked about "Bartley's hallucinatory ideas of the facts." Anthony Day, who ran the Los Angeles Times editorial page, called Bartley's page "humorless, zealous and doctrinaire" (the second two indictments, but certainly not the first, bearing some validity).

Remarkably, staffers on the news side of the Journal, who have no connection with Bartley and his staff in the newspaper's "church and state" division, have spoken critically of Bartley on the record. In 1982, veteran political reporter James Perry said Bartley engaged in "name-calling." Alan Murray, when he was the Journal's deputy bureau chief in Washington, said a state of "enmity" existed between Bartley and the rest of the paper.