Neal B. Freeman
William A. Rusher, the indomitable spirit of the American Right, died on Saturday morning. It was most unlike him. From the early days in the shabby offices of National Review through the glittering days at the Reagan White House, Bill Rusher was the most impassioned and forceful presence in the modern conservative movement.
A few recollections:
I met him when Bill and Pat Buckley invited me to dinner at their old townhouse on 69th Street, just across the street from an aromatic Chinese restaurant. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, Rusher had been a litigator with a top Wall Street firm and later, as a professional Communist-hunter, served as counsel to the Senate’s famous (or infamous) Internal Security Subcommittee. He was prodigiously well-informed and sharply articulate — a man of hard commitments. My first impression of him was that, if you happened to be a Communist, you would be well advised not to let your scent find its way to his nostrils.
When I got to NR in the early Sixties, Willi Schlamm had been expelled, Whittaker Chambers had died, and Russell Kirk’s voice had become disembodied. The force fields were Buckley and Rusher, Burnham and Meyer, Bozell and Rickenbacker. The editorial meetings were occasions of high intensity. At that early stage, there was no operating manual for the conservative movement. (Admit it. The first time you heard the outlines of the fusionist approach, you thought it was preposterous, right?) We were making it up as we went along, issue by issue. At one pole was James Burnham, the “first neoconservative,” a former Trotskyist, brilliant and intellectually playful. At the other was the voice of the emerging conservative orthodoxy, Bill Rusher, the grandson of a West Virginia socialist. These discussions, carefully moderated by Buckley, sometimes turned into debates and, somewhat less frequently, into ideological brawls. The moment that burns in memory occurred in the spring of 1964. Burnham had spun out an elaborate notion that, with Goldwater falling in the polls, NR, for exotic tactical reasons, should transfer its support to Nelson Rockefeller if he managed to beat Goldwater in the upcoming California primary. Burnham’s bizarre pitch — NR wasn’t just covering the Goldwater campaign; it was the Goldwater campaign — had its usual mesmerizing effect on Buckley, who seemed to be leaning toward Burnham’s position. The meeting did not end well. Rusher stormed back to his office to draft his letter of resignation. (Rickenbacker and I, and perhaps others, did so as well.) In the event, Goldwater won the primary and the letters were dropped in the round file. A loss to history, I suspect. Rusher’s letter, written in magnificent fury, would have singed eyebrows for miles around. Day in, day out, for 31 and a half years as publisher of NR, Bill Rusher was indispensable in hammering out what became the basic doctrine of conservative politics.
Bill Rusher was the first conservative talk-radio star — not as a host, but as a guest. After a full day at the office and a fine meal — always a fine meal — Rusher would appear as the conservative token on late-night radio in New York City. Programs hosted by Long John Nebel and Barry Gray were regular stops: a liberal host and two or three liberal guests made the odds “just about right” for the scrappy, self-confident Rusher. Token, indeed. Well-prepared and bulldog-tenacious, he won a legion of new fans for his dog-bites-man politics. I later got him a gig on a PBS debate show called The Advocates,
where each week he faced down a liberal opponent, a liberal audience, and, in the moderator’s chair, an even-handed fellow by the name of Michael Dukakis. The debates were judged by viewers voting by postcard. Rusher became PBS’s worst nightmare. He won week after week.
Bill Rusher was a tireless recruiter and mentor for his cause and country. Thousands of us got letters of encouragement, hundreds a reference or an opened door, a few of us, the charmed inner circle, got the Rusher World Tour. No, not Paris and Rome. Taipei, Jo-burg, and other islands stretched out along the anti-Commie archipelago. How large did Bill Rusher bulk in these beleaguered capitals of political disfavor? True story: In the early Seventies, I was in Tokyo on business and received an invitation to join Rusher for an official visit to Taiwan. I arrived early in the morning, rushed through a series of events, and then repaired to a government office for a briefing on the following day’s schedule. The evening news was playing a series of clips on a television monitor — me at the airport, me disembarking from a limo, me at the Foreign Office, me at a reception at Madame Chiang’s Grand Hotel. I became transfixed. This was not the sort of coverage that would have attended my arrival in, say, Cincinnati. I asked my government handler what the gist of the story was. He paused, pondered, and then said with a sweep of his hand, “Friend of Rusher arrives in Taipei.”— Neal B. Freeman has established the William A. Rusher ’44 Debate Prize at Princeton University.