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The Man Who Built The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page

Warren H. Phillips, one of the three or four greatest figures in the 129-year history of The Wall Street Journal, died last Friday at age 92. He was a giant of American journalism, as his obituaries attest. But he also played a mighty role, largely unheralded, in the promotion of a particular brand of responsible, thoughtful, and lively conservatism.

Phillips spent nearly his entire career, save for a few months in Europe working for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, at the Journal. Starting at the bottom of the newsroom as a copy editor, he rose at a torrid pace—London bureau chief at age 23, foreign editor at 29, managing editor at 35, general manager of parent Dow Jones at 48, and Dow Jones president at 50. As Ned Scharf wrote in his 1986 book Worldly Power: The Making of the Wall Street Journal, Phillips advanced through the ranks largely through his remarkable managerial efficiency and his almost total avoidance of mistakes.

I worked under Phillips’ leadership for 12 years, and I can add that he maintained a calm, measured, sympathetic demeanor that translated into a quiet force. People responded to him avidly and with appreciation.  

Throughout Phillips’ increasingly significant stints of leadership, he nurtured and protected the Journal’s trademark conservative philosophy.

He certainly wasn’t any kind of strident ideologue. He simply believed in the collective wisdom and stability of free people and free markets. It wasn’t always so. He had cast his first presidential vote for Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas in 1944. But during his London tenure, after witnessing the sputtering socialist policies of the Labour government that ousted Winston Churchill in 1945, he concluded that such nostrums simply couldn’t work. As he put it in his 2012 memoir Newspaperman: Inside the News Business at The Wall Street Journal, “I became convinced that a few individuals, however wise, pressing the buttons and pulling the levers to try to direct and shape an economy, were no match for the way things worked in a free market, in response to the buying, investing and saving decisions of millions of individuals.”

In other words, he embraced the economic philosophy that had been for decades a Wall Street Journal hallmark.

Later, when his elevation placed him in charge of the editorial section as well as the news pages, he maintained a strict separation between the two, while fostering an editorial page conservatism that was sharply delineated, courageous, and probing. It ruffled a lot of feathers, including in the paper’s Washington bureau, where reporters and editors chafed at its uncompromising tone. But Phillips never wavered in his support of his editorialists.

His most significant move in this direction came in 1971 when he fostered the appointment of Robert L. Bartley as editorial page editor. The page didn’t formally fall under Phillips’ jurisdiction at the time, but he convinced his boss, William Kirby, that the paper should pass over a number of more seasoned men and give the job to the 34-year-old Bartley. Bartley had been recruited to the editorial page from the Journal’s news staff, based largely on the depth of thinking and felicity of writing he had displayed in numerous book reviews submitted while he was a reporter in the Philadelphia bureau.

“Bob stood out,” wrote Phillips in his memoir, “because he wrote with a distinctive flair and his thinking was clear and incisive.”

It wasn’t a popular decision. Alan Otten, the paper’s influential Washington bureau chief, lobbied strenuously against the appointment based on his view that Bartley was an “ideologue.” Some members of the bureau came to regard Bartley as a “zealot” and intellectually brash. Tensions between the editorial page and the Washington bureau festered throughout the 30-year Bartley tenure.

But Phillips never wavered in his support for Bartley. When chided about it, he would often quote from a letter penned by Barney Kilgore, the Journal’s great leader from the previous generation. After a Dow Jones board member complained about the paper’s “right-wing” views, Kilgore wrote to him: “The country has many newspapers and magazines expounding the liberal point of view. What it doesn’t need is a publication that hews to the middle of the road, writing ‘on the one hand’ this and ‘on the other hand’ that. It needs a publication that can articulate, with force and eloquence and in well-reasoned fashion, the conservative position and philosophy on issues before the country.”

That’s what the Journal did throughout the 20th century and still does. But it’s interesting to note that, during this time, many newspapers and magazines with conservative traditions were abandoning their ideological moorings and joining the liberal pack. Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, once a feisty voice of Midwest conservatism, transformed itself into something barely distinguishable from The New York Times. During the 1960s, when the Los Angeles Times embarked on its program to turn itself into a high-quality paper (wonderfully accomplished by Otis Chandler), it also abandoned its traditional conservatism and embraced a kind of rote liberalism.

But the Journal remained true to its heritage, in large measure because of the devotion and fortitude of Warren Phillips and a few others.

That contributed to the paper’s immense influence over the decades, much of it attributable to the brilliant intellectual leadership of Bartley. In the 1970s, he promoted a restoration of old economic thinking that coalesced into latter-day supply side economics, which became the bedrock of Ronald Reagan’s successful economic policies over the next decade. He attacked Richard Nixon’s “detente” flirtations with Soviet Russia and promoted an outlook that, when also embraced by Reagan, contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet empire. When Bill Clinton was elected president, Bartley warned against the migration of Arkansas’ corrupt political culture to Washington, which soon manifested itself in the Clinton White House.

Sometimes the Journal’s editorial page went too far, showing signs of that ideological fervor that Otten and other Washington hands had warned against. Further, those of us in the “realism and restraint” camp on foreign policy have found the page’s post-Cold War bellicosity difficult to fathom, and Bartley’s open borders advocacy downright infuriating. But throughout Phillips’ storied career, the Journal has largely projected a strong voice of conservatism

The voice was all the stronger because the paper had expanded so much in circulation, reach, force, and influence. Many Phillips obituaries noted that when he arrived at the paper in 1947, circulation was 100,000. During his tenure, it surpassed 2 million. This is a noteworthy publishing accomplishment, much of it attributable to the brilliance of Kilgore, who transformed a Manhattan financial sheet into a national business newspaper. But Phillips must also receive credit for that growth.

When I arrived at the company in 1974, the Journal’s circulation was around 1.4 million. During my first week, Phillips proudly explained at a staff meeting that the paper had just opened its first satellite printing plant in Orlando, Florida. Within the next decade it added more than a dozen other such remote printing facilities, enabling it to produce more papers much earlier and get them to more subscribers more quickly. This powerful innovation contributed to the paper’s last circulation surge, from 1.4 million to nearly 2.1 million in 10 years. That rendered it not only much richer and more ubiquitous but also far more influential.

When we contemplate the fluctuating fortunes of conservatism over the past several decades, we must assign a major role to The Wall Street Journal editorial page in shaping the conservative message and bolstering its reach and force. And a significant part of the credit for that must go to Warren H. Phillips, the guiding hand for the newspaper and its parent company for nearly 50 years.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.

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