12.10.2003

A SAD DAY FOR FREEDOM


Robert L. Bartley Succumbs To Cancer at the Age of 66

By a WALL STREET JOURNAL Staff Reporter


Robert L. Bartley, who made The Wall Street Journal's editorial page one of the nation's most influential conservative voices during his 30 years as its editor, died at age 66.

Mr. Bartley's editorials, which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1980, ranged from criticism of arms-control treaties to doubts about President Bill Clinton's character. His greatest impact came in turning the Journal's editorial page, as he put it, into "the mouthpiece of supply-side economics," the tax-cutting ideology that has influenced Republican fiscal policy from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.

Mr. Bartley prided himself on what he called the "muzzle velocity" of his editorials, which offered a sharp contrast to his quiet demeanor. He was a "soft-spoken Midwesterner whose voice is usually the softest in any crowd," conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote earlier this year in the Weekly Standard. "He has let his keyboard do the talking -- in a very loud voice indeed."

Mr. Bartley, who once considered himself too liberal to be comfortable on the Journal's editorial page, attributed his strongly held views to his Iowa upbringing. "I think there is something about a Midwestern background that tends to make people unafraid in expressing their own opinions, a little less sensitive to peer pressure maybe than in the East," he said in an interview several years ago.


"Robert Bartley was an articulate and most effective advocate of free markets, indeed freedom generally. His thoughtful voice will be sorely missed," Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said.

Until the mid-1970s, the Journal's editorial page worried about federal budget deficits, arguing that government borrowing crowded out borrowing by private firms and thus hurt the economy; Mr. Bartley's professional preoccupation was with arms-control treaties and campus unrest. His first editorial-page hire, Jude Wanniski, who was a columnist for a Dow Jones & Co. publication called National Observer, changed all that. Mr. Wanniski introduced Mr. Bartley to two unconventional economists, Robert Mundell, then at the University of Waterloo in Canada and later a Nobel Prize winner, and Arthur Laffer, an alumnus of the Nixon White House budget office. Both saw tax cuts, even when financed by borrowing, as an economic tonic, and Mr. Laffer's famous "Laffer Curve" persuaded many politicians that cutting tax rates could produce higher government revenues by giving people more incentive to work.

Mr. Bartley eventually became a convert, and shaped the sometimes-dense writings of the supply-siders into lucid editorials and features. The movement's first big break came in 1978 when a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, William Steiger, successfully proposed a cut in the capital-gains tax to stimulate investment, winning the Journal's hearty endorsement. Then Ronald Reagan, running in the 1980 Republican primary, adopted supply-side ideas and went on to act on them with his 1981 tax cut and the 1986 Tax Reform Act, which lowered marginal tax rates. The Journal's editorials have been championing tax cuts ever since, shaping the debate over fiscal policy to this day.

"How many other editorial pages can say they created the economic policy for an administration and for an era? Without The Wall Street Journal editorial page, there is no supply-side economics," journalist Fred Barnes said in a Public Broadcasting System documentary in 1999.

"It's clearly something on which I've had an impact, certainly more than any other thing," Mr. Bartley said in an interview. "But basically I consider myself a journalist, and I'm proudest of developing the editorial page as one that breaks a lot of news, of which this is one prominent example. We were proud of it because we were ahead of the news, not because we made it happen."

Mr. Bartley's editorial page could be sharp in criticizing individuals with whom it disagreed, not just their points of view. One editorial, upbraiding Republicans too willing to raise taxes to shrink budget deficits for Mr. Bartley's taste, took aim at New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici with the headline: "John Maynard Domenici." The reference, of course, was to British economist John Maynard Keynes, who ranked high among the villains in Mr. Bartley's long list.

In June 1993, the editorial page singled out Vincent Foster, deputy White House counsel and a former law partner of then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, with a headline "Who Is Vincent Foster?" Other editorials about Mr. Foster and his role in the Clinton White House followed. On July 20, 1993, Mr. Foster killed himself. A note later found in his briefcase said, "The WSJ editors lie without consequence." The editorial page later published four books compiling its investigative commentary into the Clinton's Whitewater land investments and the Clinton presidency.

"Many of the ideas that Bob conceptualized and crusaded for over so many years by now have taken root at or near the center of political and economic life," said Peter Kann, chairman and chief executive of Dow Jones, publisher of The Journal. "On issue after issue he turned out to be right. Most broadly, the philosophy that he summed up as "free men; free markets" has turned out to be ascendant in country after country around the world. In that sense, the sometimes-lonely warrior turned out to have a world of allies. Ascendant ideas will be Bob's most enduring legacy. But that legacy also includes the men and women he hired, taught and inspired at the Journal editorial pages who remain to carry on his work. "

Mr. Bartley viewed himself as an optimist, and was heartened by what he had observed during his career. At a retirement party in 2002, he contrasted the current political climate to the one prevailing when he took over the editorial page 30 years before. "This was not merely a troubled society," he said, "this was a society in the process of becoming unglued."

"Don't wish for the good old days," he counseled his admirers. "In 1972, problems were worse. We did overcome Communism, stagflation and the Vietnam syndrome. For all our momentary problems, at the turn of the century the Soviet empire had collapsed, democracy was spreading in unlikely spots … and the American free-enterprise mode was established as the route to development."

"What I think I've learned over three decades," he said, "is that in this society, rationality wins out, progress happens, and problems do have solutions. This, I like to think, is what happens when a society incorporates the traditional editorial credit of my newspaper: free markets and free people."

The son of a professor of veterinary medicine, Robert Leroy Bartley was born in Marshall,, Minn., on Oct. 12, 1937, and grew up in Ames, Iowa. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Iowa State University and a master's degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin

In 1962 at age 24, Mr. Bartley was hired as a reporter in The Wall Street Journal's Chicago bureau. The book reviews he contributed to the paper's editorial page impressed then editorial-page editor Vermont Royster, who asked him to join the editorial page in 1965. "Bartley at first resisted on grounds that he wasn't conservative enough. After all, he voted for Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater," Mr. Novak has written.

But he took the job anyhow. When Mr. Royster's successor, Joseph Evans, died suddenly in 1972, Mr. Bartley became editor of the editorial page. He was named editor in 1979 and a vice president of Dow Jones in 1983. He became editor emeritus in 2002 and continued to write a column called "Thinking Things Over."

Mr. Bartley's Pulitzer Prize was awarded for a wide-ranging set of editorials. One, titled "Down With Big Business," argued that General Motors' support for Jimmy Carter's wage-price guidelines was a means to squeeze small competitors, such as "XYZ Bumperlight Lens Co." The editorial concluded: "Historically, capitalist economies have prospered through competition, innovation and particularly a sensitive price mechanism transmitting unimaginably efficient signals for less production here and more investment there. If you freeze the system, you will lose its thrust toward progress. But in many ways, GM's life will be easier. So don't look to big business for unequivocal defenses of capitalism. We guess that's up to the folks at XYZ Bumperlight Lens."

Earlier this month, President Bush awarded Mr. Bartley the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. "A champion of free markets, individual liberty and the values necessary for a free society, his writings have been characterized by profound insights, passionate convictions and an unyielding optimism in America," the citation read.

Over his career, he also won a Gerald Loeb Award and a Citation for Excellence from the Overseas Press Club of America. He was the author of a book on Reagan administration economic policy, "The Seven Fat Years: And How To Do It Again," published in 1992. He was awarded honorary degrees from Macalester College, Babson College and Adelphi University.

Mr. Bartley is survived by his wife, Edith, who was his high school girlfriend -- his only one, according to his brother Dale -- and by their three daughters.

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