New York — 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 thirty years the Napoleon Bonaparte of the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. 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 these structures — 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 backwards, 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 his 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 Twentieth Century into a twenty-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.
Entitling 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 America. 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 thirty 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 November 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 present travail.
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 U.S. 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.