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Robert Bartley, 66; Editorial Page Editor at the Wall Street Journal

Times Staff Writers

Robert Bartley, the former editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal and a leading voice in conservative thought in American politics, died Wednesday of cancer at a New York City hospital. He was 66.

Bartley, who was credited by many with turning the Journal’s editorial page into a bulletin board for the political right, won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1980. He guided editorial opinion at the journal for more than 30 years, becoming editor emeritus in January 2003. He continued to write his weekly “Thinking Things Over” column until shortly before his death.

One week ago, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Bob had a profound influence on the Journal, on journalism, and on public life in America and beyond,” said Peter R. Kann, chairman and chief executive officer of Dow Jones & Co., which publishes the Journal, in a message announcing Bartley’s death Wednesday to the newspaper’s staff.

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“He clearly was one of the greatest editors in the long history of this company,” Kann said in the message. “Just as clearly, he was one of the major intellectual forces on our lives and times.”

Whether one was in agreement with the Journal’s editorial stance or not, there was little dispute that Bartley’s page provided consistently provocative editorials.

“He had an enormous effect on politics,” said Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism. “The page became a highly valued institution of Republican politics and can be credited with part of the resurgence of the party.

“As for the Journal, he made the editorial page more conservative

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Bartley’s pages upheld the ideas of “free markets and free people” with an agenda that included individual initiative, limited government, decentralization, less regulation and lower taxes. He supplied the initial platform for supply-side economics during the Reagan administration and also nurtured the notion of giving parents greater choice in choosing schools for their children, both public and private.

Writing in the Weekly Standard in January after Bartley retired as editorial page editor, syndicated columnist and CNN commentator Robert D. Novak noted that Bartley’s “muscular foreign policy sounded the death knell of isolationism on the right .... He has not permitted conservatives to forget such unpleasant issues as tort reform.”

Novak said Bartley left a profound imprint on public policy, particularly by helping to mold and then advocate supply-side economics.

Bartley met with free-market economists Arthur Laffer and Robert Mundell to formulate the controversial theory, and the Journal, Novak recalled, soon became “the communications engine of the supply-side movement.”

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“Without Bartley and his newspaper,” Novak wrote, “supply-side economics would have been stillborn.”

Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) agreed that the Journal’s editorial page support was vital.

“It was of seminal importance to the Reagan revolution,” Kemp once told the Boston Globe, adding, “It provided the underpinnings intellectually for Reagan’s economic policy.”

Bartley was anathema to many Democrats. Novak said Bartley’s assaults on President Clinton’s ethics set the standard for Republicans.

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Bartley came to media attention himself in 1994 after a series of editorials that criticized Vincent Foster and other lawyers working in the Clinton administration who had previously worked for the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. After Foster’s suicide, a note he left reportedly included the line: “The WSJ editors lie without conscience.”

Well before the Clinton years, there reportedly was tension at the Journal because Bartley’s editorial writers often did their own reporting and sometimes broke news that was contradictory to what was being published in the paper’s news columns.

In fact, Bartley was a thorn in the side of Democratic candidates as far back as 1984, when he ran an editorial about Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro that found no link between Ferraro and organized crime but outlined a connection that her father-in-law reportedly had. Journal editors had rejected a similar story for the news pages.

And during the 1988 political campaign, when Vice President George H.W. Bush’s campaign was pushing some unsubstantiated information that Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis had suffered psychological problems, Bartley’s pages printed the rumors in an editorial that criticized 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.

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“What we found was factual,” Bartley later told a Los Angeles Times reporter.

Bartley had many critics within the exclusive circle of newspaper editorial page editors. According to Novak, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times, John Oakes, once referred to “Bartley’s hallucinatory ideas of the facts.” Anthony Day, who ran the Los Angeles Times’ editorial page from 1971 to 1989, once described Bartley’s page as “humorless, zealous and doctrinaire.”

For all his impact in politics, Bartley was not a particularly flashy guy.

David Brooks, who worked for Bartley for nine years at the Journal and is now a columnist for the New York Times, described his former boss as a person who was extraordinarily comfortable with long lulls in conversation -- “silence that lasts and lasts” -- which drove Brooks mad. But Brooks noted in a 1997 essay for the Weekly Standard that he understood Bartley’s silence.

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"[He] grew up in the slow rhythms of the rural Midwest,” Brooks said. “He’s a quiet man, after all.”

Bartley’s reticence belied a rock-solid confidence in his views -- and in those of his writers.

“The one time you do hear from Bartley,” Brooks wrote, “is when you are in trouble, when some target of yours has threatened to sue

He said Bartley would “insist on hitting back twice as hard. If someone issues blustery libel threats, you can be sure that Bartley will make them even angrier before he’s finished with them.”

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The son of a professor of veterinary medicine, Bartley was born in Marshall, Minn., and grew up in Ames, Iowa. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin. He worked as a reporter at the Grinnell (Iowa) Herald-Register before joining the Journal as a staff reporter in the Chicago bureau, becoming an editorial writer in 1964. He was named editor of the editorial page in 1972.

In addition to winning the Pulitzer, Bartley was awarded a citation for excellence from the Overseas Press Club of America and a Gerald Loeb Award for business writing.

He also wrote “The Seven Fat Years: And How to Do It Again” (1992) about the Reagan administration’s economic policies.

He is survived by his wife, Edith, and daughters Elizabeth, Susan and Katherine.

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Times staff writer Geraldine Baum contributed to this report


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