At the End of Main Street


Ricochet members have long followed the exploits of contributor Bill McGurn (at least, those that aren’t sealed in an FBI file…). His next pursuit, as Troy noted in December, will be helming the opinion pages of the New York Post. Bill’s farewell column in the Wall Street Journal ran today:

… this shall be my last Main Street column. Come Friday, I take up residence as editorial-page editor at the New York Post, another fearless newspaper whose own proud history dates back to Alexander Hamilton. As I bid farewell, I offer a few thoughts about what it is about The Wall Street Journal that has made it such a congenial home for me.

It begins with an approach to life utterly at odds with the cliché of economics as “the dismal science.” That’s no coincidence. “The dismal science” was coined by Thomas Carlyle, a 19th-century Scottish intellectual who excoriated the free-market advocates of his day (along with their evangelical allies). Their sin? The conviction that men are created equal—and that wealth and progress would come to any society whose law and institutions upheld human liberty.

This same spirit animates The Wall Street Journal. At its heart, the spirit is simply confidence in the ability of ordinary men and women to better themselves if given the freedom to do so. Every Journal newspaperman for whom I have labored shared this disposition: Bob Bartley, Seth Lipsky, Gordon Crovitz, George Melloan, Dan Henninger and now Paul Gigot, the editor who so graciously invited me to write this column.

It’s a terrific column, and it offers a sense of what’s to come at the Post. As Bill notes, he learned at the knees of one of the finest newspapermen of our era:

Thus one of my earliest Journal memories is of Mr. Lipsky assigning me to read a speech by Robert McNamara. Here was a man whose disastrous handling of the Vietnam War as secretary of defense was perhaps exceeded only by the damage he would later inflict as president of the World Bank. When Robert Strange McNamara looked out at the poor, he saw menace. In language soaked in the imagery of nuclear holocaust, he predicted global doom unless governments addressed the “mushrooming cloud of the population explosion.”

My editors made it clear they were guided by a very different idea: that human beings ought to be seen as minds rather than mouths.

Having worked with both Seth and Bill, I can attest that Seth’s journalistic lessons were learned well. These two men share the same love of the craft of newspapering—the deliciousness of a juicy scoop; the deep satisfaction of a really gripping story. And even when writing in different venues, neither has lost the basic sensibility of the reporter.

And that makes all the difference. Today, “commentators” are a dime a dozen; repackaged conventional wisdom, and this or that person’s “take” on the same news story, are more abundant than paternity-test reveals on daytime TV. In exceedingly rare supply are the opinion writers who get ahead of the news, and who in fact break news. It takes much more work (and talent) to think three steps ahead of the pack; to not pop off on the topic everyone is writing about, but to investigate the topic no one is writing about; to call sources, put quotes on the record, and carefully verify every last detail. Readers of Bill’s WSJ column and his other writing (including scoops reported on Ricochet) will appreciate that they’re reading the work of a true newspaperman.

Of course, one way to find the stories that everyone else overlooks is to approach the world with a different perspective than everyone else (or at least most everyone else in the profession). Bill explains why he’s long felt at home at the Wall Street Journal:

I believe that this same disposition—to see potential where others see only problems—is what leads these pages to welcome the immigrant and the refugee; to fight for the inner-city schoolchild stuck in a rotten public school; to champion the guy who scrapes and saves for a hot-dog stand only to have some pol try to force him out in favor of something more chic; and to look beyond the noble intentions of a new tax or regulation to the unintended consequences for those least able to afford them.

Writing informed by this disposition requires men of great decency, unafraid to put themselves on the line—emotionally, professionally—to advance a just cause. Men with the compassion to be legitimately infuriated when a president who sends his own children to Washington’s toniest prep school denies the same opportunities to his daughters’ classmates. Men with the courage to take on the least fashionable cause, writing consistently in defense of the least powerful Americans—the unborn. And men with the humility and good cheer not to take themselves too seriously in their writing (and thus become insufferable bores).

Newspapermen like Bill and Seth believe that, done right, journalism is an honorable profession—one that seeks to illuminate timeless truths, to remedy injustices, and, in this country, to preserve America’s distinctive ideals of liberty—of, to use the phrasing of their former employer, “free markets and free people.” It’s easy to lose sight of the honor in journalism today—very easy, in fact—which makes it all the more important to recognize those places where it can still be found. 

So cheers to Bill as he moves to his next adventure. I know he’s looking forward to working with the very talented writers and editors at the Post’s opinion section (among them other Lipsky protégés). So check out the original views and smart reporting in the Post in the days and weeks to come. And when you have a minute, read today’s reflections from a fine newspaperman—and an even finer man.


Members have made 4 comments.

  1. Member

    Bill McGurn is one of the most sensible commentators on politics. And the WSJ editorial page, in contrast to the NYT, is the model of thoughtful, rational, and fact-based commentary.

    Hope Bill will continue to post here.

    • #1
    • January 9, 2013 at 4:33 am
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  2. Thatcher

    I totally agree. We met him at a Hillsdale function the summer we did Hillsdale Hostel. Looking forward to future posts here.

    • #2
    • January 9, 2013 at 5:43 am
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  3. Member

    Ricochet members have long followed the exploits of contributor Bill McGurn (at least, those that aren’t sealed in an FBI file…).

    In the file would be the pearl of great vice.

    • #3
    • January 9, 2013 at 10:29 am
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  4. Contributor

    Thanks everyone. As Meghan noted, I had great teachers — including one that also taught her!

    • #4
    • January 10, 2013 at 12:44 pm
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