Freedom’s Best Friend

What a great man Bob Bartley was. He had guts and he was honest and independent and he worked hard. He was living proof that journalism doesn’t have to be a vanity production. It can be big. It can change history. He did.

It is hard to convey, in the age of the conservative ascendancy, what it was like 30 and 40 years ago for conservatives of Bartley’s generation. There was no Rush, and no hundred conservative magazines, and no top 10 conservative radio shows and no cable. It took guts to stand where you stood. There was a Democratic Party lurching left and a Republican Party dominated by pale and chubby men who had reluctantly or eagerly embraced liberalism because, as they used to say, they knew what time it was. They knew liberalism was the unstoppable future, and they understood that a good blow-dry haircut is more or less what you need to lead in the modern era. They liked being liked by what was then Georgetown.

There were a few strange-o’s like Barry Goldwater and his fans, and Reagan running for governor out there in California, but otherwise nothing was happening within the conservative movement. As a matter of fact the phrase “conservative movement” didn’t exist, because there really wasn’t one. Only hardy Bill Buckley’s witty and impassioned National Review, which was not only the gold standard but just about the only conservative organ grinding out ideas and observations.

Until Bob Bartley. And the cluster of economists, firebrands and policy intellectuals who gathered to him, and who lit the pages of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial section with a light so bright it became a beacon. Under Bartley, true freedom of speech came and reigned in a great modern American newspaper. The new supply-side economic theory? Tell us your facts. An argument for the end of post-Vietnam era American defeatism? You can talk about it here. The culture getting coarser? Pull up a chair. You didn’t have to be a standard doctrinaire liberal to find a voice here.

That sounds like common sense. But it was an achievement. It was Bartley’s.

*   *   *

As a personality I’ve never seen such a disjunction between manner and status. He did not take himself seriously but took the great issues that roiled our country seriously, and he took it on himself to be a combatant, and then a leader. And he was honest about it. Startlingly honest. He didn’t respect liberal journalists who made believe they weren’t liberal, and he wasn’t going to go that route. He declared what he was—a supply-sider, a conservative, a believer in the legitimacy of American prestige and power—and allowed the reader to judge his views and opinions through an honest lens. That was something kind of new, too.

He was by nature mild, soft-spoken, and possibly shy. I was never sure. When you sat and talked with him he was direct, humorous, probing, unself-conscious. That doesn’t sound shy. At the same time he maintained a certain reserve and wasn’t given to the spontaneous spilling of emotions, secrets, insights or gossip. I always thought it interesting that he didn’t care if anyone knew who he was. He didn’t care if you were impressed. Part of this, I think, is due to the fact that he thought that if the waiter in the restaurant didn’t know he was the great Bob Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal, he’d have a more authentic experience with the waiter. And if you had to have an experience it might as well be an authentic one. I also think he was constitutionally incapable of vanity.

At the same time he knew who he was. (Maybe that’s why he didn’t have to have strangers know.) He didn’t care if he was at the hot party or meeting or event. When I spent time with him and his wife at the 2000 Republican Convention, we had dinner in an outdoor pizza place, with paper plates and plastic forks. He sat and quietly watched important journalists run by on their way to the convention floor to see the action. I don’t think Bob thought that’s where the action really was. I think he thought that in his head was where the action was. I think he was right.

He was unillusioned and yet optimistic, felt human agency could change a great deal, and loved America in a way so Midwestern and ingrained that he never had to mention it or show it. It was just there, like his soft gray hair.

He was one great man. He was a great American. The Founders would have loved him. So many of us are grateful that George W. Bush, earlier this month, gave Bob the presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian honor. Well given. Freedom never had a better friend.