Dipping Their Pens in Well of Liberty

Posted on April 13, 2003 | Type: In the News | Author: Robert Robb
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Editor's note: At the Goldwater Institute's annual dinner Saturday night, Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb introduced Wall Street Journal editor emeritus Robert Bartley as the recipient of the Kolbe Excellence in Journalism Award. Here are excerpts from his remarks:

A few years ago, George Will introduced that year's Goldwater Award winner, Bill Buckley, as the most consequential journalist of our age.

Buckley was consequential because he and the magazine he founded, National Review, provided the intellectual foundation for the formation of the conservative movement.

In fact, it can be fairly said that Buckley created modern conservatism, a marriage - sometimes happy, sometimes strained - between free-market economics, cultural conservatism and anti-communism.

But early conservatism was very much a dissident movement. In its maiden edition, National Review declared its mission to be standing athwart history, shouting "No!"

Bob Bartley is a similarly consequential journalist. In his own writing and through his leadership of the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages for 30 years, Bartley has provided the intellectual foundation for transforming the conservative movement from a dissenting to a governing force, fully capable of competing for political authority.

This is most clear regarding what is now known, regrettably in my judgment, as supply-side economics. I prefer the term "growth-oriented tax policy."

Political movements, of course, require politicians to transform ideas into action, as Barry Goldwater did for the dissident phase of conservatism.

When I first met Jack Kemp (also a Goldwater Award winner) in the mid-1970s, he was a freshly-minted congressman already fixated on economic growth. But his ideas were mostly conventional business-oriented tax incentives.

Very shortly thereafter, he became an evangelist for giving priority to marginal rate reductions in personal income taxes, an idea he acquired from reading the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

Ronald Reagan adopted it and made it policy. The result was a remarkable period of economic growth. From the time Reagan's tax cuts were fully implemented in 1983 to their effective reversal by the budget deal of 1990, economic growth averaged 3.8 percent a year. Moreover, contrary to today's caricature, the rich didn't get richer and the poor poorer. Everyone got richer and nearly four million Americans were lifted out of poverty.

Bob Bartley has written the definitive account of this period in his book, The Seven Fat Years, a masterful blend of economic theory, economic history, and political journalism.

This year, Bartley became editor emeritus, writing the aptly named "Thinking Things Over" column on Mondays. But he leaves a legacy of an editorial page that still bustles with the ideas on which future policy will be built.

John Kolbe, the late Arizona Republic columnist after whom this award is named, was an acrobat as a writer, dazzling the reader with rhetorical feats of remarkable dexterity.

Kolbe liked politicians individually. But he had a skepticism, bordering on Menckenesque cynicism, about politicians as a genus. He was more confident in their ability to amuse than to accomplish.

Bartley is more like a master carpenter, nailing irresistible plank after irresistible plank to what becomes his irrefutable argument. And reading Bartley, you get the sense that he believes that if you are patient and explain it enough times, the politicians will eventually get it right.

Both writers, however, dipped their pen in the same well of liberty, a belief that freedom is both a moral and a practical imperative.

As Bartley put it in a column reflecting on his years as editor: "What I think I've learned over 30 years is that in this society, rationality wins out, progress happens, and problems have solutions. This, I like to think, is what happens when a society incorporates the editorial credo of my newspaper, free markets and free people. In that kind of a society, optimism pays."

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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