Jewish World Review Dec. 19, 2003 / 24 Kislev 5764
Bob Bartley, an American story
It's been a hard year for American journalists. We're still mourning Michael Kelly, who was killed in Iraq, and the promise of Michael Kelly. We torment ourselves by thinking about how young Kelly, already perceptive beyond his years, might have become the next William F. Buckley - not in style, certainly, but in talent, zest, depth and initiative.
Michael Kelly was just in love with whatever he was doing at the time, whether it was editing a magazine, having a family, writing a newspaper column, letting some pretentious jerk have it in print or, most of all, seeing for himself. (This wasn't his first trip to a war zone.)
Then last week came the news of Robert Bartley's death. With the notable exception of William F. Buckley, Mr. Bartley may have been the greatest force for the rebirth of conservative ideas in American journalism over the past half-century.
A reservation: I'm not sure if conservative is the right word for Bob Bartley's politics - even if that's the ideological slot everybody put him in without thinking about it. He was more a liberal counter-revolutionary. He was a liberal in the old, now almost forgotten sense - a believer in free markets and free men, a Manchester liberal, a John Stuart Mill liberal. Which made him not just a conservative by today's unthinking standards of political classification, but a formidable force. He came along at a time when the country was hungry for his beliefs but didn't know it yet.
No wonder then, when Bob Bartley explained and applied those old beliefs anew, they came like a breath of fresh air in a room closed off too long. Like the Reagan Revolution itself. Bob Bartley was not just one of that revolution's great fomenters but great explainers. The country's ideological conformity was shaken. Thought - real thought - will do that.
Mr. Bartley won acclaim (and a Medal of Freedom) as editor and guide of the Wall Street Journal's vigorous editorial page.
It had been a respectable enough page before he took it over, maybe a little too respectable. I'm trying to avoid the word dowdy, but can't. Mr. Bartley's predecessor, Vermont Royster, was a great man, but in the way a dignified monument is great.
It was Bob Bartley who transformed the old Journal's dull solidity - its editorials had much the same feel as its stock tables - into a feisty, daily force in American journalism, politics and thought. A force majeure.
Agree or disagree, you knew Robert L. Bartley's editorial page would be cogent, its politics coherent and its thought energetic, always looking ahead and fighting for the future. Very American.
Yes, Mr. Bartley let a few of his writers go too far on occasion. Some of us here in Little Rock still haven't forgotten the Journal's loose talk about Arkansas Mores, which it seemed to confuse with Clinton Mores.
But his editorials were never guilty of the besetting sins of the American editorial page: a tendency to take refuge in an even-toned neutrality between good and evil or, just as bad, a thoughtless knee-jerk answer to every question.
In welcome contrast, Bob Bartley's page thought hard and fought harder. Probably his greatest service was in popularizing supply-side economics; he believed in Reaganomics before it had a name, and was influential in preparing the intellectual seedbed for its rise.
Yet he always thought of himself as a newsman. He was as unpretentious in person, as gentle in manner, as he was fierce in journalistic combat.
I remember him as a gracious host quizzing me over dinner one long-ago evening about this young governor of Arkansas who was going to run for president. I told him the young governor had a problem telling the truth. It was hard to put your finger on it then, but Bob Bartley understood what I meant, instinctively. Somewhere along the line he had acquired what Ernest Hemingway once said was the prime qualification for a writer: a built-in B.S. detector. It served him - and the country - well.
Bob Bartley's critics might have been able to forgive him for being wrong now and then; they could never forgive him for being right so often.
Born in Minnesota, raised in Iowa, Bob Bartley came to New York fresh and aspiring and Midwestern-open, and, most remarkable, stayed that way. He hailed from what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the dark rolling fields of the Republic, and he never ceased to be an outsider with an outsider's sharp eye, intense interest and ever fresh spirit. He grew tall because he was always in touch with his roots. And when he died last week at 66, he died young.
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