Brian KennedyCharles Kesler
Bill Rusher was a fine man who lived a fine life. He was present at the creation of modern conservatism and for over half a century moved through it with grace, intellect, and simple patriotism. One could not meet him without believing that this was a man for whom conservatism was not merely an intellectual bent but a lifestyle, a calling, a cause.
Bill was an intellectual, to be sure, but one who understood practical politics. He was instrumental in the Goldwater campaign and as a columnist had a profound impact on America’s public discourse, most especially during the Reagan revolution. His writings were civic-minded, addressing the most important issues of the day with a principled understanding of what would be required to reign in big government.
I had the pleasure of working with Bill after his days as publisher of National Review when he became a distinguished fellow of the Claremont Institute. With then-president Larry Arnn, Bill directed a series of conferences on such diverse subjects as the Enlightenment, what would be required to recover traditional morality, and what the future of conservatism would look like. Bill could see that what Reagan had achieved was not enough. There had to be more and better arguments made. Liberalism had not been defeated, conservatism was not yet victorious.
On a personal note, I can recall fondly the many trips Bill made to the Claremont offices in southern California from his home in San Francisco. On one occasion — he must have been 79 at the time — I remarked on how well he looked and asked him the secret to his youthful appearance. I genuinely wondered, was it exercise, diet, what? Bill’s response was immediate: “Brian, I never moved a muscle I didn’t have to.” That was Bill Rusher: funny, honest, and straightforward.
William Rusher was the very definition of a civilized gentleman. May God bless him and the country he loved.
— Brian T. Kennedy is president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy in Claremont, Calif.
He had sayings, carefully vetted and ready for use when the occasion warranted. About once a year you might hear this adage — which I suppose he invented though he never exactly said so — concerning health and aging, subjects he thought about often: “In your 30s nothing will happen, in your 40s nothing should happen, in your 50s something may happen, in your 60s something will
happen, in your 70s (if you get there) you’ll be batting down one damn thing after another — and either then or in your 80s one of them will get you.”
One of them finally got Bill Rusher, aged 87, living in the elegant San Francisco retirement home into which he’d very deliberately moved a few years ago. Everything he did he seemed to do with meticulous forethought. He had come west when he stepped down as NR’s publisher, after 31 and a half years’ service, in 1989. He picked the Nob Hill building, his apartment, the books and the furnishings it would accommodate, the direction he would walk on his constitutional — all well in advance.
Granted, he didn’t plan on falling in love with San Francisco. That, I think, was spontaneous, though he’d never have decided to move there without testing the feeling over many years and many visits.
Rusher was a man of orderly habits, as the famous NR stories about him attest, but he willingly signed on for Bill Buckley’s impetuous, undercapitalized adventures, above all National Review
itself. He knew he would forever be in Buckley’s shadow, yet he couldn’t imagine a better or more important place to be, unless it were electing Barry Goldwater president or starting a third party. Rusher had more to do with either of these ventures than WFB did, but both were failures, albeit seminal ones. Nonetheless, the publisher liked to think of himself as more worldly, more practical than the editor, and in many ways he was.
For one thing, he was a lawyer (and the founder of the Young Republican Club at Harvard Law School — he always preferred the more political side of law). I bet he would have been an excellent courtroom attorney, judging from his winning ways on The Advocates
. This show was my introduction to Bill, and he was a master of the skeptical, scornful, devastating cross-examination. His toothy smile alone unnerved many a liberal expert witness. The action wasn’t limited to Firing Line
in those days. Conservatives had a second wonderful show to watch, even though PBS didn’t plan it that way.
I got to know Bill when I interned for NR in the summer of 1978. A few summers later he invited me to Manhattan to discuss a project involving opinion surveys of college students. After lunch at his favorite French restaurant, we walked back to his apartment, where we paused for a few minutes so he could play for me “Ya Got Trouble” from the original-cast album of The Music Man
. The apartment was very much like a men’s club, red-leather sofas and chairs with bookshelves full of histories, many by or about Churchill, one of his heroes. He wanted me to know there was trouble in River City, with a capital T. But the trouble wasn’t pool, it was liberalism!
When Bill retired to California, my wife Sally and I got to see him more often. His place was just down the hill from the little apartment we keep in San Francisco, so we’d have lunch or dinner with him occasionally at the Big Four or the University Club. In fact, he used to hold little conservative salons (the only size allowed in San Francisco) at the University Club on Saturday mornings, and he’d often invite Sally to speak about health-care reform. When he was preparing to move to the city, I asked him if he’d like to be affiliated with the Claremont Institute. He jumped at the chance and became a distinguished fellow, arranging such conferences as “The Permanent Limitations of Science” and editing such important books as The Ambiguous Legacy of the Enlightenment.
Retirement was a relative term in his case. He wore a suit virtually every day, well into his eighties, continued writing his syndicated column until a few years ago, and traveled extensively until his health gave out.
He liked to say he had circumnavigated the globe five times, which must have been difficult because he refused, on principle, to visit any Communist country. His travel writing, in NR’s “Delectations” feature, was some of his most charming. I still remember his paeans to the Italian Lakes region and his beloved Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio.
Bill had a kind of historical optimism that did not quite do justice to his own, his generation’s, and especially Churchill’s achievements. In this respect, at least, he was like his other political hero, Ronald Reagan. Hence this Victorian quatrain by the poet Coventry Patmore, with which Rusher ended virtually all of his formal speeches. I offer it in tribute to an old friend:
For want of me the world’s course will not fail
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot.
The Truth is great, and shall prevail
When none cares whether it prevail or not.— Charles Kesler is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. .