Four score and seven years ago, a father and mother brought forth William A. Rusher. And on Saturday, April 16, he perished from the Earth. In the days between, he was one of the architects of the American Right. For 31 years, he published National Review, in the same Manhattan offices where William F. Buckley Jr. edited the conservative fortnightly. Rusher unflaggingly promoted Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. After 16 years and a new birth of freedom, Ronald Reagan rose like a phoenix from the embers of the Arizona senator’s unsuccessful bid, in no small part thanks to Bill Rusher’s labor.
While American conservatives and free-marketeers mourn the loss of one of our most dedicated and talented advocates and organizers, gentlemen and ladies of all persuasions should lament the departure of a grand old man who possessed a grace and refinement seldom seen these days. In an age when unshaven airline passengers cannot be bothered to tuck in their dirty T-shirts, Rusher’s counterexample glistened. Until he was well into his retirement, I never saw him without a tightly knotted tie that brightened a perfectly pressed and buttoned jacket. His monogrammed shirts bore his initials: WAR. His manners, dress, and demeanor were impeccable.
We never worked together, nor did we jointly trudge through New Hampshire’s snows on behalf of any candidate. Our entire relationship consisted of meeting for leisurely lunches and dinners from when I, a young Reaganite, met him at the 1983 Conservative Political Action Conference, through last October 15, when I saw him for the final time. Rusher was a true epicure who effortlessly navigated among exquisite clubs, exclusive restaurants, and excellent wine lists.
In the spring of 1985, Rusher invited me to the Sea Grill abutting the Rockefeller Center ice rink. While skaters sped past our table, and the flags of the world breezily snapped on masts above us, he coached me on how to handle Phil Donahue’s TV show the next morning. The long-time liberal host planned a program around yours truly, Armstrong Williams, Robert Woodson, and the late Kimi Gray — all members of an exotic new species that the media just had discovered: black conservatives.
In September 1987, soon after I moved to New York to earn my MBA at NYU, Rusher hosted me for lunch at Le Grenadin, a French bistro in Murray Hill. At age 23, I first spotted salade niçoise on a menu. “Hey, Bill, what’s this salad NICK-o-see,” I asked, manhandling the unfamiliar word. “Nee-SWAHZ, Deroy. Nee-SWAHZ,” Rusher corrected me. That’s the last time I made that mistake.
In late December 1991, we enjoyed lunch in the Crown Room, on the 24th floor of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. On a perfectly crisp day, we absorbed the sunshine and the spectacular view and celebrated a very special occasion. We lifted our glasses to the disunion of the Soviet Union. That evening, the hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, and the USSR went “Poof!” Neither of us had imagined that we would witness such a thing, or that it would happen so peacefully. Of course, Rusher’s decades of anti-Communism had helped speed that event, with the sanguine results that we toasted that afternoon.
Rusher traveled the world. He was a frequent visitor to Taiwan and South Africa, among many destinations. He also was terribly enamored of Lake Como, Italy — one of Earth’s five most beautiful spots.
However, he refused to pierce the Iron Curtain. Why not? I asked. He responded rather indignantly: “We are at war with these people, Deroy!”
I also watched him briskly walk out of a speech by a Chinese diplomat named Ting at a conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.. “I don’t see the need to be lectured to about freedom by Mr. Dingaling,” he huffed, before stepping out to puff a cigar.
Rusher was a life-long opera aficionado. When he was 16, his mother took him to the Metropolitan Opera House at its old home at Broadway and 40th Street. He was moved deeply by the performance of coloratura soprano Lily Pons in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. “It’s still my favorite opera,” he told me. “I could practically sing it. I could, if I could sing.”
Rusher was no big fan of rock music, although he surprised me a few years ago by recalling that a young friend once played him the Beatles’ classic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He described it as “not bad.”
Also to my surprise, he said that he rarely read fiction. “Why would you?” he asked me in what seemed like mild astonishment.
“Sometimes,” I answered, “I like to escape.”
“I don’t like to escape,” Rusher said. “I like to engage.”
William A. Rusher was an only child whose parents stayed together until they dropped him off at Princeton University. They declared Mission Accomplished, and went their separate ways.
While at Princeton, Rusher enrolled in the ROTC. He did not qualify for field artillery, due to his poor eyesight. So, as he graduated and World War II roared on, he chose from several options and agreed to serve in the U.S. Army Air Forces administration in Miami Beach in 1943. He then volunteered to go overseas and was shipped off to Bombay and then Calcutta.
“I was a supply officer in the Air Forces’ headquarters for the India-Burma Theater in Calcutta,” Rusher remembered during a 2008 conversation at the San Francisco Towers, a combination retirement community, medical gerontology center, and virtual Four Seasons Hotel, where he spent his last six years. “I was a very influential man. I had everything that everybody wanted: pianos to shrimp.”
Did he see any combat?
“Heavens, no!” he said, although he was decorated for his service.
“I got the Bronze Star for arranging for shrimp cocktail once a week in the officer’s mess. I later found out the name of the man who had flown that shrimp into Calcutta: Barry Goldwater. He was with the Air Transport Command.”
After nearly a year on the subcontinent, Rusher was sent back to the U.S. for training “on my promise to return to India,” he said. “But the war ended when I was in training school and interrupted the promise, and I didn’t have to go back. I served several more months and was discharged.”
What was the biggest surprise in his career?
“I guess that I wound up being a publisher,” he said after some thought. “I started out as a lawyer, and I was looking for a law job when Buckley offered me the job as publisher. And I’ve lived happily ever after.”
When he retired, Bill Rusher first moved to San Francisco’s beautiful Nob Hill district, which secured for him cobalt-blue skies, clear vistas of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, and searing sunshine almost every day, even as other neighborhoods were as socked in as London in January. Rusher often met friends in what he called “my living room,” the ornate lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, opened in 1907. From there, Rusher would take visitors to The Big Four, a splendid restaurant named after Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and C. P. Huntington. These tycoons injected their capital into the Central Pacific Railroad. They famously laid its tracks eastward from California, whereupon they met the westward-bound tracks of the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah. Thus began the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.
Just down the hill from the Fairmont stands the University Club of San Francisco, of which Rusher was a long-time member. He dined there frequently and particularly savored a cigar for dessert along with the fourth-floor balcony’s majestic panorama of steeply plunging California Street, the skyline, and the East Bay.
“I came here first in ’56,” Rusher remembered. Republicans that summer re-nominated President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon at their convention at the Cow Palace. “That was my first experience of San Francisco. I loved the place, and I always wanted to move here after that, but I never got around to it until 1989. And as soon as I retired from National Review, it was a beeline.”
He spoke fondly of San Francisco’s first-rate restaurants, perhaps its greatest pleasure. “They support me in the style I like.” He also loved the city’s climate. “There’s no need for air conditioning,” he said. “If you feel warm, just open a window.”
How did Rusher like being a conservative icon in what may be America’s most left-wing metropolis?
“I dismiss the liberals,” he chuckled. “They’ve got to live somewhere. If they have the good judgment to live in San Francisco, good for them.”
Would he have done anything differently?
“Oh, undoubtedly, little things,” Rusher said. “But the basic thrust of the conservative movement — I never have regretted that for a moment. Talk about surprises — I guess there’s one. I didn’t really think the conservative movement would become the howling success that it eventually became. I sensed in the 1950s that conservatism had a lot of kinetic energy. And I wanted to get involved. I thought it was going somewhere. But I didn’t join in any spirit of opportunism. I really wanted it to work. And it did work, better than I really expected it would.”
William A. Rusher added that the Right’s philosophy “will continue to be a big force because conservatism is a way of looking at the world — a world view. And I think a rather accurate world view, unlike socialism, or something like that. So, I think it has a good future.”
— Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.