December 16, 2003 | Wall Street Journal

What Does It Mean?’

Many fine stories have been written this past week honoring Robert L. Bartley, editorial-page editor for 30 years of The Wall Street Journal, who died last Wednesday at 66. In many ways Bob wrote his own visionary story across the decades and around the globe, with his love of ideas that set people free, and his vitality in fighting for what he believed.

In that great story, I was just one of many people who worked for him, and came to know him not only as an editor, but as a mentor and a friend. Over the past two decades, off and on, I spent 13 years on his staff, half of that on the other side of the world, reporting to him from Hong Kong. Many people had a far bigger part in his life. But knowing Bob was one of my own life's greatest blessings, and there were aspects of this that today just need telling.

Bob worked in newsprint, but he lived by values that had the permanence of great art. He reminded me of a line from a poem by Matthew Arnold, about Sophocles–a man “Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”
That, I think, is not only how Bob saw the grand web of economics and politics, with his arguments that there is one global economy, and there are universal values. It was also how he saw the human character. His defense of individual freedom and dignity was not abstract. His politics were of a piece with his respect, and courtesy, for the individuals he saw every day. What made him so immediately important to so many was not simply his stature as the greatest newsman of our time. It was his gift for appreciating the best in the people around him–with no fuss. Bob looked you over, sized up the good and the bad, figured out what you cared about, found ways to put it to use, and walked off down the hall to put out the next day's paper. That was satisfying.

He was constantly teaching. There was one exchange I had with him, in which, apart from the greeting, he spoke basically two sentences, and they still echo when I sit down to write. The occasion was June 4, 1989. I was in Beijing, and had just witnessed the events in Tiananmen Square. I raced back to my hotel and phoned Bob at his home in Brooklyn. We didn't know if the phone lines would be open by the time I'd had a chance to write up the story, so the first priority was to give him the details. He put a cassette in a tape recorder, and told me: “Start with the high points.”

I gave him a detailed account of the night.

And then he asked the Bartley question, the one that summed up not only his editorializing, but I think his entire approach to life:

“What does it mean?”

Bob had a gift for answering that question, sometimes when people were not expecting it. I remember him on a trip to Hong Kong about 13 years ago, where he spoke at an advertisers' lunch. One local businessman got up to deplore Hong Kong's crass image in the world community as nothing more than a giant shopping center, and then asked a long-winded question about how Hong Kong could get more respect. Bob look at him and gave a two-word answer: “Hold elections.”

I also remember his care, back in 1988, in how we handled the publishing of passages from a suicide note written by a former finance minister of the Philippines, Jaime Ongpin–a man who had earlier put his life on the line to fight for democracy in his country, only to feel he had failed. Into my draft of the story, Bob edited words of deep compassion for Ongpin's family, and expertise both on the ways of world politics and the devastating effects, on one brave man, of severe depression.

Bob's ability to cut through confusion to basic principles armed him with prescience on many fronts, including the waging of the Cold War and the importance of presidential character. But the moment that in retrospect still floors me came by way of a phone call from Bob in the summer of 1997. I was on leave in New Delhi, and he rang to tell me that with the devaluation of the Thai baht–an event I had noted with little interest a few days earlier–he expected a series of major financial crises to follow. While much of the world was still waking up to how big this really was, Bob was also marshalling his forces. That included bringing me back to New York within weeks to pitch in on writing editorials on what turned out to be the Asia-Russia-Latin America crises in emerging markets.
Early in that stretch, in December, 1997, there was an afternoon when he stopped by my desk, looked at me with a mischievous grin, and in his famously cryptic way said one word: “Orange.”

I looked back at him. “Orange?”

“Orange County,” he replied, referring to the default which that same county had weathered without the kind of bailouts that were fast becoming the norm of the spreading crises in world markets. From that touchstone came a whole series of editorials on the damage done when taxpayers are required to subsidize other people's risks, and the virtues of placing responsibilities where they belong.

Running through all this was Bob's humor. In the time I spent in the New York office, what summoned me to the informal gatherings that were the editorial meetings was more often than not the sound of his laugh–a delighted cackle, really–from somewhere down the hall. It was the laughter of someone who took joy in living, who in the great battles for a better world invited you to join him as a comrade-in-arms. Who never stopped asking, “What does it mean?”

Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears in the Opinion Journal and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.