Memo To: Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Passing of Bob Bartley
In the memo on the margin I posted yesterday about US Politics Today, I recalled that in January 1972, while I was working for the Dow Jones National Observer as its political columnist, I got two job offers at the same time. One was from a U.S. Senator who asked me to join his staff as Legislative Assistant, the other came from Bob Bartley, who had just been named editor of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, asking me to join him as an editorialist. I told the Senator the choice was clear as I would remain in my chosen profession. I wrote: “The rest is history, as Bartley and I teamed up to put supply-side economics on the map.”
It was coincidental that I wrote this on a flight from LA to Newark without knowing Bob Bartley had just died. It was only after I posted the memo when I got home that I saw the news scrolled on CNN. What a shock it was to me, totally unexpected as Bob was only 66 years old, a year younger than I. Of course I knew he’d battled prostate cancer, but the last news I had was that -- like several of my other old friends with the same affliction -- he had beaten it and was in good health. There was a time not that long ago when we had spoken almost every business day, but in recent years it became difficult for us to talk with so many political issues coming between us, most particularly Iraq and the Middle East. Our occasional exchanges by e-mail steered clear of contentious topics and stopped completely this year as I became a sharp critic of the editorial page over the pre-emptive war with Iraq. I did believe, and I thought Bob did too, that we would both live long enough to see these political differences resolved, so we could renew in our old age the friendship we had in our youth. I can’t say how much I now regret that cannot happen.
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It was in early 1969 that I had my first contact with Bob, as I opened a little note envelope at my desk at the National Observer in Silver Spring, Md., with a return address at the WSJ’s Washington bureau. It is extremely rare for one newspaperman to write a letter of praise to another about a particular story. The note from Bartley simply told me he was at the bureau and had read my op-ed in support of President Nixon’s position on the anti-ballistic missile treaty. He said he wished he had written it himself. That was that, as he then signed off without another word. It was the only note of its kind I ever got from another journalist in almost 20 years in the business, and it speaks volumes about how Bartley would become the most important journalist of our time, by which I mean the last 30 years when his closest competitors were Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post and Abe Rosenthal of The New York Times.
We did soon get together as I called him to thank him for the note and suggested a lunch, which became a regular event over the remainder of 1969 and then all of 1970. I found he was a shy man, especially for a reporter, and it turned out he was much more comfortable in the ivory tower of an editorial page. Indeed, he was not a beat reporter for the Journal but had been stationed in Washington by the Dow Jones top brass, to be seasoned in preparation for an editorship in the distant future. When we met, he was only 32, but the renowned WSJ columnist and editor, Vermont Royster, had already decided Bob would someday run the editorial page. Soon after Bob and I met, I introduced him to some of my contacts on Capitol Hill, one a young man named George Will who worked as a speechwriter for a Republican Senator, Peter Dominick, the other a young man named Richard Perle who worked for a Democratic Senator, Henry (Scoop) Jackson. We comprised a small circle of intellectual hawks in the Cold War, a circle that steadily widened as time went on, eventually enveloping the Republican Party and, through the influence of the neo-conservatives, much of the Democratic Party.
Because the Journal’s editorial page editor, Joe Evans, was only 50 and would not retire until age 65, Bob would have had another 15 years of grooming ahead of him. That all changed when Evans died of a heart attack in December 1971 and the brass at the paper decided Bob was still the best candidate for the job. A number of the older men on the page who were disappointed at being passed over asked to be transferred to the news pages and Bob suddenly had slots to fill. That’s when he called and asked if I would like to join him in NYC and write political editorials. At first, taken aback, I asked why he didn’t call George Will and make him the offer. He said he had already called George and that he said he was committed to his Senator through ’72, but suggested to Bob that he “call Wanniski.” Still, I demurred, putting off a decision until my wife could see where we might live in New Jersey. On our visit, Bob and his wife Edie took us to a fancy French restaurant in midtown NYC. There I explained my last concern, that I had never written editorials and wondered if I could be good at it. Bob said cheerfully, “All you need is arrogance!” I laughed, said I had plenty of that, and accepted the job.
The story of how I introduced Bob to the concepts of supply-side economics via Arthur Laffer and Robert Mundell has been told many times, with Bob himself offering a version in his memoirs, “The Seven Fat Years,” first published in 1992. I’d introduced him to Laffer in 1971, when Art was still working as chief economist at the Office of Management and Budget. It wasn’t until May of 1974 that I met Mundell and it was in that summer that he met Mundell, when he came to Columbia University from Ontario. The process of ditching the monetarist paradigm that had been at the core of the page’s economic editorials evolved slowly, but the time I remember most is when Bob announced to the staff of four that henceforth all debate had to stop at 12 noon, as we had to get enough work done to fill the page. The endless discussions about quantity theory and monetary aggregates and gold and tax progressions and bracket creep were consuming the entire workday.
At any other newspaper there would be no such debates at all, nor would they be necessary. But it was Bob’s way of promoting a climate of intellectual ferment that he could see was steadily increasing the readership and the influence of the page, both in the financial community and in Washington. What endeared him to me and to practically everyone who ever worked with him was his willingness to take chances on new ideas, even when it inevitably meant finding some turned out to be half-baked. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Thinking back to the six years I spent with him in New York, it is amazing how much he let me get away with in pursuit of political change. And because he had the sweetest personality imaginable, there were never any cross words from him no matter how badly an initiative turned out or how heated the internal discussions became. When I resigned on June 6, 1978, it was because I knew Bob could no longer stretch the rules to give me the freedom I needed to push the intellectual product of the editorial page to the next stage, which would require the election of a President of the United States in 1980.
History should be clear that while everyone in one way or another influences history, Bob Bartley could not have done more in the way he lived his journalistic life to make things happen. Even when we were 180 degrees apart on the subject of how the United States should manage the world, I told him I not only understood why he took the positions he did, but that I could not say for sure that he was wrong and I was right. I’m only sure he and I agreed that because of our freedom to have honest disagreement whatever contributions we make will be sorted out in a positive way. In his obituary run in today’s NYTimes, Bob is quoted as saying at his retirement party last year: “What I think I’ve learned over three decades 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 credo of my newspaper – free markets and free people. In that kind of society, my three decades as an editor testify, optimism pays.”
Somebody should write a book about this guy.
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Here is the Journal’s report on Bob Bartley’s death: