WASHINGTON — My friend Bob Bartley, editor emeritus of the Wall Street Journal, died at 9:35 Wednesday morning, December 10. I knew him for over three decades. During that time he grew from being a quiet slightly enigmatic Midwestern reporter in the Journal’s Chicago bureau to being the most powerful editor of the most powerful editorial page in the country — powerful, that is, if ideas change the world, and his did.
In the 1970s Bob, once something of a liberal, became a Cold Warrior and foresightedly opposed arms control and Mutual Assured Destruction. By the 1980s he was one of the small band formulating and promoting Supply-Side Economics. In the 1990s he led an even smaller band of journalists who recognized the Clintons as reckless abusers of power and serious threats to the rule of law. By the turn of the century the Cold War had ended peacefully with the Soviet Union in history’s dustbin, Reaganite prosperity was flourishing, and President Bill Clinton had been impeached.
Bob’s ideas of a strong military and a vigilant foreign policy had replaced accommodation. His ideas of tax reduction and economic growth had replaced statist economics. And the Clinton Administration was increasingly seen in lurid hues, the Democrats’ equivalent of the Harding Administration though without the innocent consequences. Bob had moved on to champion the Bush Doctrine, which he with his keen sense of history recognized as a demarche as significant as 1947’s policy of containment.
In his weekly Wall Street Journal column, written in a fluent style employing lucid English spiced with an occasional dash of folksiness, he ranged widely across problems recognized by the nation or not yet recognized by it. Only those who have worked with him and the historians who will eventually chronicle his times can appreciate Bob’s genius for seeing history’s challenges coming across the horizon. He usually saw them before the rest of us had a hint of what was coming. Usually he recognized the requisite policy for dealing with them. By the end of the first half of the current Bush Administration Bob was speculating that the Forty-Third President was ushering in a New Establishment to replace the jejune and rancorous liberal establishment. That is the challenge he leaves for all thoughtful libertarian conservatives to take up.
Then came the cancer, which he fought gamely and treated matter-of-factly. Retiring the editorship of the Journal in 2002, he found himself busier than ever, doing television which he relished, his column, speaking widely, and planning long-term intellectual projects to keep the nation’s intellectual debates vigorous. That was not enough. He encouraged me to revitalize The American Spectator. Despite illness and all his other obligations he presided over the magazine’s redesign, encouraged new emphases appropriate to the changing times, and took a look at the business side. His long-time friend, the investment banker Ed Yeo, believed that along with all Bob’s other talents this student of economics and commerce also had a stupendous aptitude for business.
He did. Watching him attend to the myriad details of journalism was an illuminating experience that I know I shall never experience again. Bob’s knowledge was incomparable. He knew how the world works. How he knew all this is a mystery, genius is a mystery.
To the last there was a twinkle in his eye, at times a mischievous twinkle. He was a quiet man, punctuating conversation whether social or editorial, with long pauses, which doubtless puzzled some people, but his friends understood: Bob was thinking about the topic at hand. And he often broke his silence with another unforgettable mannerism. He would roll his head left and right while uttering a particularly emphatic judgment in his flat slightly nasal voice intoning the unaccented idiom of the Midwest, his native region in which he took immense pride.
Bob had a beatific smile, and I never heard him express anger against anyone. Some of his critics in the Clinton years lumped him in with what they called the Clinton-haters. His judgments were too coolly arrived at for hate. Moreover he was deeply yet quietly religious. At the revitalization of The American Spectator he prevailed on me to set the record straight on our great iconoclast, H.L. Mencken. Mencken’s angers are not what we admire in a thinking person. Bob favored the values of a gentleman. He was confident of the rightness of the positions he arrived at, and understandably. For over thirty years he was rarely wrong. And one other point: he is that rare public intellectual who arrived at his eminence not by self-promotion but by the quality of his work.
The recognition came over the years, for the evidence is inescapable. Communism is gone. Markets are recognized. Integrity, the rule of law, and limited government are admired, at least in America. Bob Bartley was a great man. When the White House got word that his life was in peril, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for which he had been nominated was immediately announced after the President gave Bob a call. He was glad for that call and when a few days later he died he did so knowing that he, an old artillery officer, had left formations in the field. The Wall Street Journal advancing Bob’s vision is as formidable as ever. And he has left The American Spectator and the New York Sun, founded by Bob’s pal Seth Lipsky. All have their guns trained on the enemy. Who are the enemy? Any force endangering the heart of Bob’s philosophy of “free men and free markets.” Bob left that philosophy ascendant.