December 19, 2003

Who was Robert Bartley?

"It's the media, stupid."

Dan Kennedy, Boston Pheonix: In fact, Bartley’s persecution of Clinton was the culmination of a miserable career. Though credited with popularizing the supply-side economics of the Reagan era, his real talent was for whispering darkly about phony scandals.

Break Up the News Media Monopolies, Show Up for
Democracy in 2004: Defeat Bush (again!)

Who was Robert Bartley?
On Tuesday, Brent Staples, a liberal editorial writer
for the New York Times, wrote a tribute to the late
Robert Bartley, the retired editor of the Wall Street
Journal editorial page. Staples’s brief piece was
similar to others I’d seen in the days since Bartley’s
death. Unable to separate the public person — a
vicious scandalmonger whom Staples politely described
as "thunderous" — from the "quiet, self-effacing man"
he knew personally, he chose to honor the latter and
ignore the former.

But Bartley’s misdeeds should neither be forgotten nor
forgiven. As one of the original lying liars, Bartley
smeared Bill Clinton and his associates for eight
straight years, helping to fuel the right-wing rage
that led to Clinton’s impeachment and near-removal
from office.

The most infamous headline to appear over a
Bartley-era editorial was who is vincent foster? The
editorial, which appeared on June 17, 1993, was an
incoherent jumble. At one point, the editorialist,
presumably Bartley himself, complained that Foster,
deputy White House counsel and a former law partner of
Hillary Clinton’s, had refused to supply the Journal
with a photo of himself.

But Bartley was just getting warmed up. As later
recounted in the American Journalism Review, "Four
more Journal editorials over the next four weeks
played up Foster’s circumstantial connections to
Jackson Stephens, an Arkansas businessman involved in
the BCCI scandal, and the White House travel-office
imbroglio. Foster’s integrity, the editorials
suggested, was very much in doubt."

And on July 20, Foster committed suicide. He left
behind a note. It read in part: "The editors of the
Wall Street Journal lie without consequence."

Not that Bartley ever repented. Indeed, so proud was
he of the Journal editorial page’s incessant coverage
of Whitewater and other so-called Clinton scandals —
none of which, we now know, ever amounted to more than
a speck — that he collected all this garbage in books
and offered them for sale. Bartley’s was a parallel
universe inhabited by the Clinton-hating right. And
for a while, aided by fellow conspiracy theorists and
assorted wackos ranging from the American Spectator to
independent counsel Kenneth Starr, they nearly
succeeded in toppling a presidency.

"There’s a thin line between hard-hitting opinion
journalism and character assassination, a line that
Bartley frequently erased," wrote Jack Shafer in Slate
last week — quite an assessment considering that
Shafer considers himself "a conflicted fan" of

In fact, Bartley’s persecution of Clinton was the
culmination of a miserable career. Though credited
with popularizing the supply-side economics of the
Reagan era, his real talent was for whispering darkly
about phony scandals. In 1984, he published a piece by
Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny — on his opinion
pages, not in the news section — suggesting that
Philip Zaccaro, the late father-in-law of that year’s
Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine
Ferraro, had "connections" to organized crime. Among
other things, Kwitny included a list of questions that
Ferraro and her husband, John Zaccaro, had refused to
answer. At the time that Kwitny’s piece appeared,
Philip Zaccaro had been dead for 12 years.

According to a Washington Post piece on the furor, "In
The Journal’s newsroom some staff members considered
the story ‘an embarrassment,’ as one put it; at other
publications some said it was wrong to raise such
destructive questions without having the answers."
Bartley defended his decision, piously telling the
Post, "I think the voters have a right to decide for

Another embarrassment — the wrong word, perhaps, since
Bartley himself never seemed to be embarrassed by
anything — came over his crusade regarding "Yellow
Rain," a poisonous substance that he contended the
Soviet Union used to subdue enemies in Southeast Asia
in the 1970s.

As former Boston Globe columnist David Warsh, on his
Web site,, recalls, "The
‘Yellow Rain’ samples proffered by the State
Department turned out to be bee feces, dropped by
swarms during seasonal cleansing flights. No credible
alternative weapon delivery system was ever produced."
But Bartley never retreated.

"Bob Bartley was a corrosive force in American life,"
wrote Warsh. "Almost single-handedly, he made
extremism respectable."

It’s an epitaph for the ages, and one Brent Staples
might consider as he pays final respects to his
soft-spoken friend.

Issue Date: December 19 - 25, 2003

Posted by richard at December 19, 2003 10:10 AM