Just as we were sitting down to tap out an editorial on the homestretch of the presidential campaign, word reached us of the death of George Melloan. He had spent 54 years on the Wall Street Journal, including a long stretch as deputy editor of its editorial page. It included the climactic years of the Cold War, when we had the honor and joy of being edited by Melloan. He was one of the greatest newspapermen of his, or any, time.
We first met Melloan in the early 1970s, when we were a reporter in the Journal’s Detroit bureau. We’d gone to see him in New York about writing a piece on the illogic of needing an act of Congress to make a small adjustment in the automotive exhaust standards. The first thing that struck us about him was how large his forehead was. It must, we later concluded, have been needed to house his incredible brain.
Tom Bray, a long-time colleague, likened Melloan’s brain to a modern cloud storage system. He drew on his own reporting, reading, and long life experience. He understood economics the way farmers do — meaning, profoundly. (His family had lost its farm in 1927, in a cattle deal.) He’d been a foreign correspondent, covering, among other things, the Biafran war and the Six-Day War against Israel.
In June 1981, the New York Times rushed out an editorial calling Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor a “sneak attack” and an “unprovoked act of aggression.” When a colleague asked whether the Journal was going to say what the Times had said, Melloan famously replied: “When have we ever said what the Times said?” The next day, the Journal’s editorial suggested the world owed Israel a vote of thanks.*
Melloan didn’t keep an enclosed office. His desk was out in the open, the easier for his colleagues — and the editor of the paper, Robert Bartley — to gather round in the morning, while George, sometimes on the back of an envelope, started to sketch the possibilities for the next day’s edit page. It was always an open, relaxed, friendly meeting. There was often another meeting in the late afternoon.
When Paul Volcker, newly named chairman of the Federal Reserve board, was preparing to launch his attack on inflation, he invited Bartley and Melloan and Tom Bray over to lunch at his office in lower Manhattan. At lunch, the new Fed chairman asked whether, in the coming battle, the Journal would stand with him “when there’s blood all over the floor.” It was Melloan who famously answered: “Yes.”
In late 1989, Bartley sent Melloan to Brussels to edit the editorial pages of the European edition. We joked that Bartley had grown impatient with the Soviet Union and finally decided to send over his heaviest hitter to finish it off. Another quip had it that when the Soviet Union heard he was coming, it collapsed. In the event, George had a romp covering everything south of the North pole.
Melloan made friends wherever he went. When he hosted Lech Walesa for an editorial meeting at the Journal, colleague Melanie Kirkpatrick recalls, three Dow Jones’ house electricians were waiting by the elevator. They asked whether they could stand at the back of the room. Melloan invited them in to join the meeting, and enabled them to shake hands with the Nobel laureate in peace — the world’s most celebrated electrician.
In “retirement,” Melloan wrote books — a history of the Journal’s editorial page, an account of when the New Deal came to his home town in Indiana, and the “Great Money Binge.” His latest, “Bogus Science,” is due out from Republic Books. Earlier this week, he retired to his favorite chair in the living room of the home where he and his late wife, Jody, had raised their family, and, at 92, passed the last moments of a magnificent newspaper life.
*The editorial was called “Mourning the Bomb.” The Times’ editor, Max Frankel, later called its own editorial one of the Gray Lady’s “major mistakes.”
This edition of the editorial was expanded from the bulldog to include the paragraph about the meeting with Lech Walesa.