Amid revolution, one thing at the Wall Street Journal is unchanged: The independent nation-state of conservative Robert Bartley--the editorial pages.
Bartley’s pages--strident, gutsy, infuriating or inspirational (depending on one’s philosophy)--operate something like a naughty smart kid in school, pestering conservatives not to yield and seeking to humble liberals at every turn.
“By far the best editorial page . . . in the world,” said Commentary Editor Norman Podhoretz, fittingly unequivocal.
“They have Stalinist tendencies that the end justifies the means--a kind of intellectual dishonesty,” said New Republic Editor Michael Kinsley, once the page’s token liberal columnist. “You can use that if you say I’m also very grateful that they always allowed me to write whatever I wanted.”
However, both sides generally agree with Time magazine columnist Charles Krauthammer: Bartley’s editorial section “is extraordinarily entertaining and informative, which is fairly unusual for an editorial page.”
In an era when most editorial pages try to instruct readers through arguments that, above all, are reasoned and moderate, the Journal is deliberately provocative.
Bartley said the difference “is a matter of tactics rather than purposes. We want to be participants in the debates of our age and not, like Puck, standing above them, saying: ‘What fools these mortals be!’ ”
The Journal participated especially in the rise of supply-side economics, which began as an untested notion scrawled on a napkin by economist Arthur B. Laffer during dinner with a Journal editorial writer and soon became a national crusade.
More recently, the Journal has championed open immigration policies and freer use of experimental drugs for terminally ill patients, positions consistent with its free-market world view.
And often, on political matters, Bartley and his crew seem to relish the role of ideological kamikaze--the first to jump the trench and charge.
The most recent case is Bartley’s controversial decision to reprint last month a 17-year-old story from the Atlanta Constitution reporting that Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, now Senate Armed Services Committee chairman and leading opponent of John Tower’s nomination as secretary of defense, had been involved in a drunk-driving incident and paid a fine for leaving the scene of an accident. Nunn was 26 at the time.
The Tower debate had taken on “a rather hypocritical and take-no-prisoners partisan” tone, Bartley explained, “but the bottom line is here we spent a lot of time discussing the merits of it and finally said (that) maybe we should share this argument with the public.”
Last year, when George Bush’s campaign operatives were peddling unsubstantiated rumors that Michael S. Dukakis had suffered psychological problems, Bartley’s pages printed the rumors in an editorial criticizing Dukakis for not releasing his medical records. It even suggested that there might be a “family history” of mental instability because Dukakis’ brother had had a mental breakdown.
“What we ran was factual,” Bartley said.
And, in 1984, Bartley ran an article about Geraldine A. Ferraro and the Mafia that editors had rejected for the news columns.
The article could find no link between Ferraro and the mob and even indicated that her husband had tried to keep his distance from it. But it outlined a connection that her father-in-law, Philip Zaccaro, reputedly had.
“I guess, in retrospect, there are times that I had wished I had bucked that story back to them for more reporting,” Bartley said.
The motive in those cases, in part, is what Bartley sees as a pack mentality in the press that unconsciously skews to the left.
“It is a unified mind-set,” he said, not “a conscious effort to influence the news,” but “I think that, de facto, there is a greater tendency to go after the conservatives. . . . And I guess we have counterbalanced that some with these political stories.”