If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement
By David B. Frisk
(ISI Books, 517 pages, $34.95)
TODAY MANY YOUNG CONSERVATIVES may not know the name of William Rusher. For others who did not know him personally but knew of him, he was simply a man who was active in conservative circles. For those who did know him and had many contacts with him over the years, he was much more. For nearly 60 years he was a seminal figure in the conservative movement: tireless, ever arguing the rightness of conservative principles and working to build the movement in elective politics. That he did this without tooting his own horn is a mark of his character. By those who knew him, he was often described as an “unsung hero” of the conservative movement.
This is the man David B. Frisk has captured in his new biography of Rusher. It is, at the same time, the story of National Review, which might be called “the magazine of record” of the movement, and also the story of the ascendancy of that movement in national politics.
Bill Rusher’s interest in politics began at an early age, campaigning and debating in high school in Great Neck, Long Island. His parents were both Republicans, but not politically active. Their young son, an only child, sharpened his interest further at Princeton, where he developed his debating skills.
In the 1940 presidential election he favored Wendell Willkie over the isolationist Robert Taft.
As he began to be active in Republican politics he identified with what has come to be known as the “Eastern establishment” in the party, led for several years by Thomas E. Dewey, twice the party’s presidential nominee. This element within the party was for “progressive” and “moderate” policies.
After graduation from Princeton, Rusher, who had very poor eyesight, volunteered for overseas duty in a non-combat role. He graduated from Officer Candidate School and served in an administrative job with the Army Air Corps in India.
By the time he was discharged, he decided that politics would be an important part of his life, if only part-time. He reasoned that it would be difficult to earn a living at it. On reflection, he noted, “I was not going to write, I was going to participate.” He also did not see himself as a candidate for elective office. It was the pursuit of ideas that most interested him.
He then decided to get a law degree. He wrote, “Law is an interesting and challenging discipline, and you learn a lot and learn a way to think.” He applied to Harvard Law School and was accepted. He found postwar Harvard, unlike prewar Princeton, was spawning a great many student committees and organizations. With many returning veterans in its student body, it was a hive of energy. He became a founder of the Harvard Republican Forum.
After a time this group seemed too passive to Rusher. He then met with the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who urged him to form a Harvard Young Republican Club that would appeal to other activist-minded students. He did. The HYRC’s announcement statement signaled, in effect, Rusher’s move toward conservatism. It called students to join “who have ‘had enough’ of Communist disloyalty and socialist drivel.” By spring 1948, the club had 400 members.
When he graduated late that year, he was hired for the litigation department of an old and respected firm, Shearman & Sterling & Wright. He wanted courtroom practice because of his experience in and enthusiasm for debating, but it was not meant to be. The firm felt it could not afford to put the fate of major client cases in the hands of newcomers.
Rusher joined the New York Young Republican Club. He met F. Clifton White (who in 1964 was to manage Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign). Later, they led a small group that became the leadership of the Young Republican National Federation.
After Dwight Eisenhower became president, Rusher became disappointed in him because of Eisenhower’s failure to actively fight “redistributionist and collectivist fantasies” of the Democrats. With the censure vote against Senator Joseph McCarthy, Rusher felt that, so far as the threat of Communist influence was concerned, “Eisenhower just seemed to me to do nothing about it.”
In 1955 Rusher heard Barry Goldwater speak and was inspired by him. During that year and the next, he went through a series of events that amounted to his “road to Damascus.” He concluded, “I was a conservative.”
IN 1956 RUSHER WAS INVITED to become associate counsel to the new Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Feeling there was no challenge in his law practice, he readily accepted.
Meanwhile, William F. Buckley Jr. had launched National Review in 1955. He had heard of Rusher. They met over drinks one day in 1956. By early 1957, Rusher had been offered the job of publisher at the fledgling magazine, which had no visible means of support other than the Buckley family. What it did have was plenty of intellectual stimulation. Titans of the conservative intellectual fraternity, James Burnham, Frank Meyer, and others, found this a congenial place to do their work.
Rusher thought the offer irresistible. Buckley, with his ever-present sense of humor, self-confidence, quick mind, and competitive spirit, ran a very informal office where ideas and opinions ran freely. Although Rusher always deferred to him (“It was Bill’s magazine”), he was always free to speak his mind, and did.
All at the magazine argued about the best ways to advance the principles of conservatism, but Rusher brought an additional dimension: practical knowledge of the world of politics. Buckley’s sister Priscilla, who was also an officer at the magazine, said of him, “Bill (Rusher) knew a great deal more about the inside of politics than most of the rest of us did, and it was much more important to him.”
Rusher became the yang to Buckley’s yin. Buckley, using every forum and medium he could, concentrated on the exposition of ideas—big and challenging ideas. Rusher shared his philosophy but concentrated on the political world of here and now. He worked with elected politicians, candidates, and conservative organizations to promote their principles and apply them to electoral politics. His influence on the activists of the conservative movement cannot be understated, and they aren’t in this book.
Not all of Rusher’s ideas to expand the movement bore fruit. After the disasters of 1974—Watergate and the Republican drubbing in the fall congressional elections—he put a great deal of energy into proposing a new third party, an explicitly conservative party. He tried to persuade Ronald Reagan to lead such a party. Reagan, however, mindful of the fate of previous third-party movements, opted to work within the Republican Party (he soon gave a speech in which he called for the party to put forth ideas in “bold colors, not pale pastels”).
Rusher took this disappointment with good grace and proceeded to support Reagan’s presidential campaigns in 1976 and 1980. Rusher saw Reagan as a man who would carry out his program if elected. Thus, Reagan’s victory in 1980 was also Rusher’s. Many of the conservative ideas for which he had been working for years could now become realities in the form of public policy.
From 1957 until he retired as publisher in 1988, Bill Rusher served as ambassador for National Review, as a skilled debater on television, and as a syndicated newspaper columnist (he wrote his last column at age 85). He was an intellectual who was also a political tactician and strategist.
Retiring to San Francisco, Rusher remained active with think tanks and advocacy groups, and as a mentor to aspiring conservative politicians. Author Frisk has given us a well-rounded portrait of this singular man and his era.