Conservatism has lost its most dedicated eternal optimist. One of the last of the original conservative giants, one who was involved in all of the big battles of the right wing, and one who provided encouragement to all those hapless souls who were often on the verge of giving up. William Rusher, whom our colleague and friend Neal Freeman described as “the most impassioned and forceful presence in the modern conservative movement,” died in San Francisco on April 16 at age 87.
Bill Rusher’s optimism may have been as important to the soul of conservatism as any other single factor in the 60-year battle the right has waged with liberalism. His optimism was on display when in 1957 he left a promising career as a lawyer, having spent time with a large Wall Street firm and as counsel to a Senate committee engaged in finding Communist traitors, and joined up with Bill Buckley as the publisher of National Review in 1957, just two years after its founding. NR was not exactly a media giant in those days, but rather a lonely voice in a vast sea of domineering liberalism, its offices a far cry from the marble Senate office building or, for that matter, an elite New York law firm. But Rusher, with no apologies about his conservative convictions, optimistically went to work for the cause he would serve for the next 54 years.
I asked Rusher several years ago what he thought lay ahead for the conservative movement. “I think,” said Rusher, “the 21st century is going to be a battle. There are certain things we’ve won and certain things we’ve lost. We won the argument against Communism, we won the argument against democratic socialism, but we are not doing at all well in the cultural wars. I think that that is likely to be the big battle of the 21st century, and I’m inclined to think that our chances of winning it are pretty good.” I looked out the window of his apartment on Nob Hill, at the streets of San Francisco, and I said, “Pretty good? That’s an optimistic thing to say.”
“I am an optimist,” said Rusher. “Oddly enough, most conservatives are not, we’re famous for it. But it’s been my hallmark all along, and it has occasionally paid off. It has nothing to do with realism, it is just temperamental.”
Rusher’s optimism was on display again and again, giving him the fortitude to take on challenge after challenge. He was one of three who founded the draft Goldwater campaign in 1961, was a leader of the move to dump Nixon in 1972, and started a third party in 1976 — which soon collapsed-which he thought would be a home for conservative Republicans, Democrats, and independents. He nurtured countless budding organizations, conservative candidates and authors, and was right in his convictions almost every time.
Bill Rusher was at the apex of the conservative movement for over half a century — the half-century in which the conservative cause grew from a few lonely warriors making their case to the agenda-setting force that it is today. He was one of the architects, one of the big thinkers who helped to set the stage for a cause that would change history. But he was also a doer, one who never hesitated to take a strong position, or to encourage the rest of us who were in the trenches battling the left.
Winston Churchill once said that an optimist sees opportunity in every calamity, and a pessimist calamity in every opportunity. If it hadn’t been for Bill Rusher and a few other visionaries, the opportunities facing American conservatives would have been few and far between.