- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

When Robert Bartley became editor of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page at age 34, this page — this paper — did not exist. It would not for another decade. Yet his 30-year tenure helped shape not merely this institution, but also this town, and indeed, the very times he wrote about.

In tribute to his long toil in the often-thorny fields of liberty, President Bush announced this week that Mr. Bartley will receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It’s a fitting award. Robert Bartley became a champion of free minds and free markets when both seemed to have been distorted beyond repair — the United States was starting to leave Vietnam to the mercies of the merciless Viet Cong, and the excesses of the ‘60s were still shocking American society.

Mr. Bartley reshaped and reformed America’s freedoms, yet he was an unlikely revolutionary. He was reluctant to join the Journal’s editorial page, telling editor Vermont Connecticut Royster that he was not conservative enough, especially since he had voted for Lyndon Johnson instead of Barry Goldwater. Mr. Bartley grew up in Ames, Iowa, and matriculated from Iowa State. Surrounded by Manhattan blue-bloods, he retained his Midwestern virtues, speaking softly, acting shyly and writing with a muzzle velocity that delighted readers and dismayed liberals.

Mr. Bartley displayed conviction even as he defied convention. Under his stewardship, the Journal’s editorial section regularly broke news, even while remaining a forum for rigorous intellectual debate. Jack Kemp once observed that the page was “indefatigable in their pursuit of ideas.” Supply-side economics might have been tossed aside had it not been shaped and promoted by Mr. Bartley. The Soviet Union might not have made it to the ash-heap of history as quickly had it not been for his efforts. Instead of being swept up in the irrational exuberance of the ‘90s, Mr. Bartley refused to allow Bill Clinton’s ethical failings to be swept aside.

Columnist Robert Novak called Mr. Bartley “the most influential journalist of our time.” As proof, the Pulitzer Prize that Mr. Bartley won for editorial writing in 1980 will soon be joined by the presidential medal. Yet his truest tribute lies not in his words — the first draft of history he wrote so much of — but rather, in the world he helped shape. While perhaps no fairer than when he started writing, it is much freer. That alone is worth many an accolade.

Congratulations, Mr. Bartley.

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