It was (almost) twenty years ago today

John’s recollections of the origins of Power Line got me thinking back to the beginning of our writing partnership in 1991. We had become friends practicing law together. That summer the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran the incredibly popular syndicated series America: What Went Wrong? by Donald Barlett and James Steele, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters who were then writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer. It didn’t take long to figure out that what had gone wrong with America was Ronald Reagan and all his works. According to Barlett and Steele, the Reagan era through which we had just lived amounted to the second coming of the Great Depression.

The series was such a hit that Barlett and Steele turned it into a best-selling paperback book. It was published in book form just in time to become something like the manifesto of the 1992 Clinton campaign. But of course.

As the series unfolded in the Pioneer Press, John reflected that it usually took a generation or two before revisionist history could be written. No one thought to offer a revisionist portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a cynical faker, for example, until Richard Hofstadter got around to it in 1948 in “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth.” We had just lived through a historic economic boom whose effects we saw with our own eyes, and yet Barlett and Steele seemed to think that a series of sad anecdotes retailed at length made for a powerful argument against the good times we had experienced.

As we talked about the series in his office, John had a characteristically inspired idea. He thought we should call the editor of the Pioneer Press and demand equal space for a series defending the Reagan record. Leaning back in his chair and putting his feet on his desk, John called the late Pioneer Press editor Ron Clark and put him on the speaker. Citing the Barlett and Steele series, John asked for equal space to present a realistic portrait of the economy of the Reagan era.

To my amazement, Clark did not hang up. He said he couldn’t offer equal space, but he would offer us 700 words for a column on the editorial page to make our case. John took the offer and we were off and running with a column that appeared in the Pioneer Press in January 1992. We spent the next few years of our partnership writing about Barlett and Steele.

In 1994 Barlett and Steele returned with America: Who Really Pays the Taxes?, another (bad) syndicated newspaper series that they turned into a book. Barlett and Steele failed to answer the question they posed in the course of the book’s nearly 400 pages. This despite the fact that the IRS releases the relevant data every year and no one such as Barlett and Steele devoting an entire book to the subject could possibly be unaware of the data. Or could they?

President Bush (41) had been a drive-by victim of Barlett and Steele’s shoddy reportage in the series and book on taxes. We wrote about that as well, in “George Bush’s tax return,” published in National Review in May 1994. We even got a classic handwritten thank-you note from President Bush expressing his appreciation for the article.

Our partnership was based on a yin-yang, sweet-and-sour, idealism-and-cynicism kind of a deal. You can see from John’s recollections of the origins of Power Line that John contributed the optimism and I contributed the pessimism. Paul Mirengoff has proved the happy medium between us. Thanks to all the many readers who have written to congratulate us on the milestone in our readership.

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