Must-Read: David Warsh: The Downside of Outrageous

Must-Read: The always interesting and usually thoughtful David Warsh gets this one, I think, very right:

David Warsh: The Downside of Outrageous: “If there is one man beside Trump himself whose spirit will haunt the hall… Cleveland… it is Robert L. Bartley…

…as editor of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal,  Bartley spearheaded the creation of the say-anything, stop-at-nothing rules that ultimately led to Trump’s success in gaining the Republican Party’s nomination…. After taking over the editorial page in 1972, he became the most influential administrator of the rules of American public debate in the last third of the twentieth century… began the populist revolt that has since found its apotheosis in Trump…. As a small-government libertarian, I never subscribed to the Journal edit page’s supply-side orthodoxy…. Reagan won the presidency in 1980, and Bartley won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. The editorial page had become immensely powerful, and has remained so.  Bartley told an interviewer in 1981, about the time Wanniski was fired for train-station-electioneering for a supply-side insurgent candidate, ‘Jude had a tremendous influence over the tone and direction of the page. He taught me the power of the outrageous.’…

I can pinpoint the day the page lost me altogether. It was March 18, 1993, with a famous editorial, whose title, ‘No Guardrails,’ has since become a WSJ battle cry. A physician who performed abortions in Florida had been ambushed and killed by a protester in Florida. The editorialist, Daniel Henninger, wrote…. “The date when the U.S… began to tip off the emotional tracks… is August 1968…. The real blame here… falls on the intellectuals–university professors, politicians and journalistic commentators… [who] defended each succeeding act of defiance–against the war, against university presidents, against corporate practices, against behavior codes, against dress codes, against virtually all agents of established authority.” There was something downright creepy about that editorial…. From the short-lived administration of Gerald Ford to the zero-based budgeting and deregulation under Jimmy Carter, from disinflation under Paul Volcker to tax simplification and Social Security stabilization under Ronald Reagan, the signal events of those years constituted a retreat from the excesses of the Sixties….

By 2001, Bartley was ill. He stepped down…. The editorial page soon began a relentless campaign for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Bartley died in December 2003, a week after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom…. Is it fair to blame the chaos surrounding this year’s Republican nomination on Bob Bartley?… I think so. No one in my lifetime systematically removed more of those guardrails, the norms governing good-faith political and economic discourse, than he. Trump is the downside of forty years of WSJ ed page comment too often just like his: outrageous, sulfurous, and, all too often, half-baked.  Bartley is dead; long live Bartley…. James and Lachlan [Murdoch] have their work cut out for them. Sometime in the next few years they must replace [Bartley’s protege Paul] Gigot, 61, with an editor capable of restoring credible focus…

July 18, 2016


Brad DeLong
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