Robert L. Bartley, 1937-2003

Bob Bartley first entered my life in the late 1960s. He was then a young journalist on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, and he wanted to interview me about the Public Interest, of which he was, he said, an avid reader. I was amazed. The magazine, then edited by Daniel Bell and myself, had been founded in 1965, and by that time had perhaps a circulation of 2,000.

Bob may have been the only journalist in America who was a subscriber to this largely academic publication. And he really read it. He was interested in such writers as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, Nathan Glazer, and Robert Nisbet, who were among our featured contributors to those early issues. Bob's article, when it appeared on the Journal's editorial page, was entitled "Irving Kristol and Friends," and its point was that a new group of thinkers had emerged who were making an original contribution to American political thinking. The term "neoconservative" had not yet been invented. Had the prefix "neo" been available, most of our contributors (with the exception of Nisbet) could have been better described as "neo-liberal."

We were thrilled, of course, at such exposure, even recognition. The subscriptions rolled in--at least 20 of them, as I recall. But a friendship and an alliance had been formed. When a few years later Bob became editor of the Journal editorial page, I began contributing a monthly column, and continued doing so for almost 25 years. Only once, in all that time, did Bob propose an editorial change. Apparently my column suggested that President Nixon's state of mind, in the handling of Watergate, was less than rational. "Irving," Bob queried gently on the phone, "are you hinting that the president of the United States has gone bonkers?" I took thought and toned down the language a bit.

Bob and I were allies in the debate on "supply-side" economics, having been converted by Bob's colleague, Jude Wanniski. The name "supply-side" was almost certainly a mistake. It took me a couple of years to figure out what it was, although Jude explained it patiently more than once. It would have helped if we had simply said that we were committed to the economics of growth instead of the economics of equilibrium and stability. The latter, of course, was (and to some degree still is) the economic theory of the bulk of American conservatism and of the Republican party, so the odds of winning that debate were close to nil.

But a political accident intervened. Jack Kemp, a congressman who had been campaigning in favor of "capital formation" as a cure for our economic ills, was persuaded by Jude and Bob that supply-side economics was a superior version of his theory. And Jack had the ear of an aspiring Republican presidential candidate named Ronald Reagan. Reagan agreed that the traditional Republican strategy of "saving the country from bankruptcy" by cutting spending--which no Republican administration had ever succeeded in doing--while leaving the programmatic initiatives in the hands of Democrats, was self-defeating. So Reagan became a convert to supply-side economics--for a while our only convert. But cutting tax rates turned out to be a highly popular idea. Thus the convert converted the nation.

Converting the Republican party to the new economics was Bartley's finest hour. It made the Wall Street Journal a politically influential newspaper, well beyond the confines of the business community. It is still the only paper of its kind in the world. Though Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, et al. all have distinguished financial papers, none has ever had the influence of the Journal. Certainly none has ever dreamed of reshaping a major political party, as the Journal has done.

In the years that followed, Bartley began to focus on foreign policy and even on the "culture wars." I say "even" because Bob had, to begin with, a Midwesterner's suspicion of intellectual quarrels. Once, when my wife complained about a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Bob expressed puzzlement that she bothered to read that publication. In due course, if he himself did not read it, he did come to appreciate that the culture represented by the New York Review had to be taken seriously, and he saw to it that the Journal did just that. And on foreign policy, Bob helped cure the Republican party of its isolationist virus, while maintaining a healthy contempt for the United Nations and its offshoots.

Bob Bartley was one of the most influential journalists of the 20th century. He was also a most admirable human being. Although his controversial opinions, strongly expressed, made him enemies, he himself had no enemies. Petty passions were simply foreign to him. Even his political opponents came to respect his intelligence, his integrity, and his great good nature.

Irving Kristol is a senior fellow at AEI.

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About the Author

 

Irving
Kristol (1920-2009)
  • Irving Kristol is widely considered to be the founder of American neoconservatism. He was the managing editor of Commentary magazine from 1947 to 1952 and the cofounder of the U.K.-based Encounter. After eight years as the executive vice president of Basic Books, Mr. Kristol became a professor of social thought at the New York University Graduate School of Business. In July 2002, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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