Press Box

Robert L. Bartley (1937-2003)

Both sides now.

Bob Bartley: Sore winner

The Robert Bartley haters—who number in the millions—are keeping their heads down following the death of the longtime editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. So that leaves me, a conflicted fan of his work, to add the critical coda to the many encomiums to Bartley piling up in obituaries and the conservative press.

Bartley critics spit nails when talking or writing about him. Back in 2001, Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley called Bartley’s Wall Street Journal editorial page “a central cog in the vast right-wing conspiracy” and its editorials often “irresponsible” and “intellectually dishonest.”

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting catalogued the “20 Reasons Not To Trust the Journal Editorial Page” in 1995, with complaints ranging from the silly (criticizing the page for calling the knaves who took control of BCCI “Arabs” when they were Pakistanis) to the significant. (When Anita Hill took a lie detector test to bolster her sexual harassment case, the page dismissed polygraphs as so unreliable as to be inadmissible in court. Eight months later, the page cited a polygraph test to promote the innocence of Iran-contra indictee Caspar Weinberger.) In 1996, the Columbia Journalism Reviewparsed a serious set of errors committed by the page and slammed its corrections policy as deliberate filibustering: “It appears to wait for a letter of correction or complaint, which is usually run two to four weeks later. … By the time a letter is published, most readers have forgotten what the editorial said, the desired goal may have been achieved … or the disputed information may have been picked up by other media.”

Liberal economists such as Paul Krugman have long belittled the page’s devotion to supply-side economics and say the boom that followed Clinton’s tax increase refutes Bartley’s ideas. Making it personal, Krugman writes that the supply-side idea “appeals to the prejudices of extremely rich men, and it offers self-esteem to the intellectually insecure.”

Writing last year in Salon, * Clinton defender Joe Conason once more assailed Bartley’s Whitewater crusade: “What his page’s journalism lacked in quality, Bartley sought to compensate with quantity, eventually filling several phone book-size volumes with reprinted material that ballyhooed phony scandals and indicted innocent bystanders.” Not just several volumes, but six! And they’re all available on CD-ROM!

I blanch at Kinsley’s 1989 condemnation in the Los Angeles Times, where he said Bartley’s page had “Stalinist tendencies that the end justifies the means.” But I know what he’s talking about. Journal editorials tend to speed-metal their way past inconvenient facts, topple straw men, and blame societal or political ills on the page’s hobbyhorses. And even though Bartley relinquished the page to Paul Gigot in 2002, the impulse remains. On Tuesday of this week, for example, the editorial page pinned the flu vaccine shortage on two of its favorite bêtes noires, Hillary Clinton and the trial lawyers. (See “Where’s My Flu Shot?”) Horsewhip Clinton and Ralph Nader all you want, but remember that some of the biggest reasons pharmaceutical companies eschew vaccines are 1) they aren’t as profitable as other medicines; 2) they’re trickier to make and get approved by the FDA because they’re “grown” rather than synthesized; 3) a new flu vaccine must be formulated each year, a difficult and expensive process; and 4) some years the country runs out because it’s difficult to precisely predict each year’s demand. (See “U.S. Vaccine Supply Falls Short,” by Jon Cohen; Science, March 15, 2002.)

Robert D. Novak sums up the conservatives’ conventional case for Bartley in a Weekly Standard tribute from earlier in the year. Bartley was beloved by conservatives because he hated lefties, campaigned for tax cuts, battled communism, and despised the Clintons. But what attracted me to the page when I first started reading it in 1973, fishing it out of a trash can each night as I cleaned an office building, was Bartley’s allegiance to the classical liberal values of free markets and free speech. Back then, Bartley was a minority of one among editorial-page editors in hewing to those views, tilting against the neo-Swedish worldview of the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times editorial pages. So if Bartley overstated his case from time to time by shouting until his vocal chords hemorrhaged and his readers lost their hearing, well, that was OK by me.

As a small-government libertarian, I never subscribed to the Journal edit page’s supply-side orthodoxy as formulated by Jude Wanniski, which didn’t seem to care about the growth of government as long as taxes got cut. Today, nearly everybody recognizes that the marginal tax rate of 70 percent when Ronald Reagan took office was at least twice as high as it should be. Cutting it down to 28 percent proved to be both a utilitarian and an individual boon. As economist Bruce Bartlett notes, the world took notice of the American tax revolution, and many nations followed our example to excellent effect. But back in the ‘70s, when Galbraithism and Heilbronerism ruled, Bartley and his scriveners were the true intellectual radicals.

The cultural tide turned for Bartley’s page and the conservative movement in 1980 when Ronald Reagan took the presidency in a landslide and Bartley won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. How much more inside could Mr. Outside get? But there’s something about victory that drives conservatives insane—they are the sorest winners ever recorded in history. As many of Bartley’s ideas gained ascendancy, his page became shriller, unable to give Clinton proper credit for getting control of spending. There’s a thin line between hard-hitting opinion journalism and character assassination, a line that Bartley frequently erased. Instead of serving as a sophisticated and credible spokespage for classical liberalism—like the Economist—his page descended all too often into the dishonesty and hackery one associates with politicians.

Even after the Republicans took the House, the Senate, and the White House in 2000, Bartley’s page continued to posture as if welfare-statist Democrats and not free-spending, corporation-subsidizing Republicans were the ultimate source of political evil. In his ongoing delusion that he was a member of a downtrodden minority even after the conservative victories, Bartley was not alone. If the Wall Street Journal edit page—or the rest of the conservative opinion-press—were to apply the sort of scrutiny to the Bush administration that it visited upon the Clintonistas, they’d have pummeled Bush for going AWOL from the Air National Guard and flailed Cheney for the obsessive secrecy of his energy task force.

Despite these shortcomings, Bartley still deserves credit for revitalizing the editorial form. “Journalistically, my proudest boast is that I’ve run the only editorial page in the country that actually sells newspapers,” he said in 2002, and he was absolutely right. Wherever editorial pages take a genuine stand on an issue instead of pondering the complexity of the world for 600 words before recommending further study, you have Bartley to thank. Wherever editorial pages report a story or break news, wherever editorials read as if they were written by a human instead of an institutional voice, you probably have Bartley to thank, too. And wherever an editorial page serves red meat instead of tapioca, no matter what the page’s politics, its writers should pay royalties to the Bartley estate.


Disclosure: In the last 20 years I’ve written three op-eds for the Journal and a couple of book reviews. I never met or worked with Bartley. Argue with me via e-mail at (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Correction, Dec. 15, 2003:This article originally described the Joe Conason column as having appeared last month. It appeared last year. (Return to the corrected sentence.)