By Daniel Oliver
The Claremont Review of Books
Summer 2012 issue
If William F. Buckley, Jr., was the light shining from the lighthouse of the conservative movement, William A. Rusher was the lighthouse. If Buckley designed the lighthouse, Rusher built it. If Buckley was the “conservative,” Rusher was the “movement.” And move he did. As political scientist David Frisk shows in his biography, If Not Us, Who?, Rusher moved as much as Buckley, and that’s moving. Rusher was less frenetic, but more focused. He was the long-time publisher of National Review, even as Buckley was its long-time, and founding, editor.
Unlike Buckley, with whom Rusher will always and inevitably be compared, Rusher was an only child. His parents divorced when he was still a teenager, he never married, and he had few close relatives. But like Buckley, who, although one of ten children, had only one child himself, Rusher never lay awake worrying about children and so was able to devote almost all his energy to his primary passion: the politics of saving America. And it is a fair judgment that save it he did, at least for the time being.
He knew he was saving it. His innumerable memos make it clear that he had a sense of mission, and that the cost of failure was doom. To various people Rusher predicted catastrophe if his approach to whatever was the issue of the day wasn’t followed. Those of us who lived through this period of American history, and who knew Rusher and Buckley well, may tend to forget how epochal it was. And those who didn’t experience it probably haven’t a clue. But American history changed course between 1955 and 1980, as it had during the New Deal era.
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In 1950, American politics was a vast cruel sea of liberalism. The literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote that
In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.
Trilling died on November 5, 1975, and almost exactly five years later, on November 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. The impulse to conservatism was indeed much stronger than Trilling knew in 1950, but he must have known how strong it was by the time he died. Buckley had started National Review in 1955 to express in ideas the conservative impulses. Barry Goldwater had been nominated by the Republicans in 1964. Buckley had run for mayor of New York City in 1965.
Ronald Reagan had been elected governor of California in 1966. And James Buckley had won a U.S. Senate seat from New York on the Conservative Party ticket in 1970. Events like those don’t happen by chance. They happen by intelligent design, and one of the most significant intelligent designers was William A. Rusher.
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In his early years, he had been a regular Republican and worked for regular-Republican candidates. In 1954, he discovered that he was also, and primarily, a conservative. In 1955, he learned that National Review was about to be launched and he signed up as a charter subscriber. In 1955, a piece that he had written for the Harvard Times-Republican (yes, Virginia, but that was a long time ago) was brought to Buckley’s attention. In that piece, Rusher warned: “The one sin for which nature exacts the supreme penalty of national extinction is a failure on the part of the members of a society to believe [in] its inherent worth.” Rusher said that the struggle for survival must not be led by “some doubt-ridden egghead exquisitely poised between Yea and Nay. The world will go—and perhaps rightly—to those who want it most.” Five decades later, the poise of the doubt-ridden eggheads is still exquisite.
Buckley quoted extensively from Rusher’s piece in his column in National Review. He sent Rusher a pre-publication copy and asked for an opportunity to talk. They met, and Buckley tried to get Rusher to write articles on legal subjects for the magazine. Rusher, a Harvard Law School graduate who was practicing at a major white-shoe law firm in New York City, had to decline, though he was not at liberty to say why: he was on his way to Washington to serve as counsel for the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. In the spring of 1957, they met again, and Buckley asked him to join National Review as publisher.
It was, undoubtedly, the perfect position for Rusher, even though as time went on friction developed—inevitably perhaps—between Rusher and Buckley. Not debilitating friction, but intermittent sparring between two unusually capable, and verbal, people with different skills, if common goals. Rusher’s position as publisher allowed him to become the conservative movement’s driving political force. He was the prime mover of the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign: he started it and marshaled the forces to make it happen. Without Rusher’s persistence, Goldwater never would have run. In fact, Goldwater never really did want to run. Can you blame him? After he was nominated, California governor Pat Brown (father of the present governor) said “the stench of fascism is in the air.” Senator William Fulbright said Goldwater was “the closest thing in American politics to an equivalent of Russian Stalinism.” And Democrats get upset today when people call Barack Obama a socialist?
But Rusher and his gang dragged Goldwater along until he saw he had no choice. It was no easy task. Goldwater could be…difficult. After the founding of the American Conservative Union, Goldwater said that he had tried to stop it and that it wouldn’t go far. “That’s the National Review crowd—you know: Frank Meyer, Bill Rusher. When I listen to those guys I start looking under the bed.” He mellowed, a bit, in his later years.
The theory behind the Goldwater run for the White House was expounded by Rusher in a piece for National Review in 1963 titled, “Crossroads for the GOP.” He said the Republican Party had “a rendezvous with a brand new idea”—the “Southern Strategy.” “Flipping the south,” as M. Stanton Evans, another central figure in the conservative movement, commented later, was “the key to the presidency, the key to the Congress. You had to have those votes, and when we got ’em, we won—and Bill saw that.” Rusher was not just an activist. He was a strategist—the strategist.
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Not all of his plans worked out, of course. The early 1970s were not good years for conservative Republicans. The Nixon Administration was lurching left with the Philadelphia Plan (which Rusher called “black quotas on Federal construction projects”), the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, flirtation with the Family Assistance Plan, Nixon’s announcement that “I am a Keynesian now,” his visit to Red China, détente with the Soviet Union, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, and his New Economic Policy, which included wage and price controls. By 1971, conservatives had lost their patience with Nixon, and by 1974 Rusher had lost his patience with the Republican Party, and set out to form a third party in time for the 1976 election. National Review was skeptical about the new party, as was Ronald Reagan, whom Rusher tried to enlist in the project but who instead challenged President Gerald Ford in the GOP primaries and lost narrowly. On election day, Rusher’s two years of effort exploded into a huge political black hole as the American Independent Party, headed by a candidate Rusher and his allies hadn’t wanted—the notorious racist Lester Maddox—got one-fifth of 1% of the vote. But Rusher moved right on…and later that year was visiting the Reagans, preparing for the future.
If Goldwater hadn’t run for president, would Reagan ever have been discovered? Who knows? Goldwater did run, because Rusher made it impossible for him not to, and Reagan was discovered. If Buckley hadn’t started National Review, would Rusher have become the powerhouse he was? Who knows? My guess is both would have happened. But they were not inevitable.
David Frisk shows that Buckley was cooler to both Goldwater and Reagan than one would suppose, or remembers, looking back from the height of the post-Reagan years. Not only was National Review cautious on Goldwater, but in 1967 Buckley backed Nixon over Reagan, whom Rusher was imploring people not to underestimate. Buckley said it was “preposterous even to consider Reagan as an alternative…an ex-actor, who has been in office now for a month.” Even Nixon disagreed with Buckley, because the office Reagan occupied was that of governor of California. The point Frisk makes clear throughout this book is: Rusher was the driving political force that made the Right a major power in American politics.
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In a biography—in real life—there isn’t always the conflict, crisis, and resolution that is required in fiction. Although there was certainly conflict (though low key) between the two heroes, Rusher and Buckley, there never was a crisis. Early on, Buckley knew, as did his sister, managing editor Priscilla Buckley, that Rusher didn’t quite fit in at NR. His lonely childhood had made him temperamentally different from the fun-loving, high-spirited, prank-playing Buckleys. Rusher thought that the magazine should be more focused on politics, and that Buckley should pay more attention to it. Neither man would change in those respects, though Rusher changed in one crucial respect, becoming a practicing Christian of the Anglo-Catholic variety in 1978. And there was really no resolution, until (perhaps) Rusher moved to San Francisco when he retired, San Francisco being about as far away as you can get from New York City and still be in the United States without wearing a lei and still be able to find a good restaurant with the indispensable bottle of first-class wine, perhaps already listed in the little black notebook Rusher always, always carried with him.
Frisk has told an important story about a major figure in American history and told it well. If Not Us, Who? is essential reading for people interested in 20th-century American politics.