On Bill Rusher

by John O'Sullivan

When I came to National Review as editor in 1988, I knew Bill Rusher only slightly. We had met at a conference in South Africa twelve or so years before, and though I had enjoyed his company and conversation, I felt him to be a somewhat distant figure. He seemed a type one then encountered quite often in American conservative circles — the civil but cool and reserved gentleman. To less senior staff figures in NR he was always known respectfully as “Mr. Rusher.” I guessed he would need some knowing before we got onto first-name terms.

I was quite wrong. He was friendly and helpful from the start; he encouraged me to take risks in changing the magazine in line with my own editorial vision; he smoothed my path socially with dinner invitations and advice on how to handle especially difficult colleagues (names on request). He was relaxed about the reshaping of the magazine he had helped WFB to shape in part because he had already mapped out his own departure from it. But I realized after a time that he also approved of most of what we were doing. About six months after Wick Allison had replaced him as publisher, Bill told a meeting that he thought the magazine was better than it had ever been. I was not so foolish as to take such praise literally, but I did draw two conclusions about Bill from it: first, that he was a very generous man, second that he was far more lively, open, and (in the good sense) progressive in his thinking than his reserved demeanor might deceptively suggest.

Bill’s thinking was both quick and formal. Asked a question, he would shape his hands into a pyramid as if about to pray, give a small laugh, say “Well . . .” and then pause for about two seconds. After seeing this act a dozen times, I used to fantasize that Bill was an alien; he was radioing the question back to Alpha Centauri, where in two seconds of our time but six months of his alien civilization’s, a committee was formulating the perfect reply. For, back on earth, after the two seconds, Bill would deliver a coherent, logical, and generally correct analysis of the problem and a suitably clever solution to it.

To be sure, Bill had his prejudices. It was said of him that, asked to explain any action taken by Ronald Reagan, he would conclude that it was either (a) a brilliant political move or (b) the best possible move in the light of all the circumstances. But Bill’s prejudices clearly had considerable scientific value because much of America’s political history since the mid-Fifties conformed to his predictions and/or advice. It was Bill who saw the long-term potential of the Goldwater movement for American conservatism — and helped to get NR behind it. And when George H. W. Bush needed strategic political advice for the 1988 campaign, he turned to Bill. The victorious Bush campaign bore the clear imprint of Bill’s coolly ruthless calculations.

Anyone at NR would have had to struggle not to be entirely overshadowed by WFB. Life there was like having a comet as one’s next-door neighbor. But Bill was never discomfited by this. At the magazine he simply did his job with quiet and precise efficiency. Outside the magazine he had great success as a debater in the long-running television series The Advocates, and he wrote a regular column on political strategy that always had the respectful attention of the professionals. When he retired from NR, he moved to the city of San Francisco where he led a happy and relaxed version of his earlier life — a contented and comfortable bachelor with epicurean tastes in food and wine and a continuing fascination with the political game. As death crept up on him in the last year, he was sustained by a combination of his Anglican faith and what Jonah and others have called his Stoic temperament. He settled his affairs by degrees. The only loose end in his ordered life was, sadly, that he did not live long enought to see the publication of David Frisk’s biography of him. It will be published this summer.

Bill was a neat man in the traditional meaning of the word, neat in his clothes, neat in his habits, neat in his demeanor, neat in all his arrangements. Yet it is only now that I realize he was also neat in the meaning that my step-daughters give to the word. May he rest in the peace that his calm and ordered soul always sought.

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