An excellent portrait of National Review’s founding publisher.
If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the
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.