U.S.

Bruce Herschensohn, R.I.P.

Bruce Herschensohn on C-SPAN in 2014. (via C-SPAN)
The conservative movement mourns the passing of a true mensch.

When Bruce Herschensohn, who died Monday at the age of 88, ran for the Senate in California in 1992, he was supposed to debate his opponent, Representative Barbara Boxer, before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The intellectually limited Boxer knew she was no match for Bruce, who despite never having attended college was a walking encyclopedia; at the last minute she insisted that there be no debate, just prepared statements. Bruce, always direct, if not confrontational, then shocked the crowd by castigating AIPAC for giving in to Boxer’s demands. Both candidates were Jewish, but the trendy Boxer was a lukewarm supporter of Israel and a leftist far removed from traditional Judaism. Bruce, a solid supporter of Israel, while not that religious, deeply respected people of faith and tradition, and he refused to campaign on the Jewish High Holidays.

Looking at a rough cut of his campaign commercial attacking Boxer on the issues, Bruce insisted it be redone because the photo of Boxer was unflattering to her. He was a true mensch, so much so that he would probably edit that first paragraph, eliminating the reference to Boxer’s diminutive IQ. Ever a gentleman, Bruce focused always on issues, never on anything that could even be considered a personal attack. Sadly, his political adversaries did not return the favor.

I consulted on that Senate campaign with my colleague and friend, the preeminent Ken Khachigian, who was doing the impossible: morphing the geeky Bruce into a quasi-populist. In an effective television commercial that informed voters that senators relied on elevator operators, Bruce said, “I’ll push my own buttons.” It was ironic that Bruce, who had been a documentary film-maker in the 1960s, would thrive in the 30-second political spots he hated. When covered in television news and in newspapers, candidate Bruce was intense: There was good and bad, and nothing in between. Voters who disagreed with Bruce on the issues so admired his integrity that they began to support him, and it looked like, despite Bill Clinton’s momentum at the top of the Democratic ticket, he could win.

Alas, the bureaucrats at the National Republican Senatorial Committee doubted my polls and diverted funding from our campaign at a crucial point in the race when her TV buy was eclipsing ours. That, and a dirty Boxer trick smearing Bruce at the end, insured his defeat. Had he won, the U.S. Senate would have gained a kind of 19th-century orator — a man who would have stayed up late into the night writing his own speeches, and then delivered them with absolute moral clarity, with senators and the gallery listening intently to his words. If there were a debate on legislation, there is no doubt that Bruce would always have won the argument, if not always the vote.

Bruce was a paradox. Like Richard Nixon, whom he so admired — the two were close, and Bruce remained loved by the Nixon family long after President Nixon’s death — he was an introvert, hardly candidate material. I’ve known candidates unenthused about fundraising, but Bruce was something else. “I’ll run only on one condition: I will never ask anyone to give money to my campaign,” he said at the outset of the race — and much to Ken’s dismay, he meant it, too.

After Frank Shakespeare, the “boy wonder” of television in the 1950s — he was the youngest TV-station manager in the country for a time — helped guide Nixon to the presidency in 1968, he became director of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in the Nixon administration. Bruce was already director of USIA’s motion-picture division and continued in that post, gifting America with movies for international distribution that told our story and hit hard at communism. That he had been known as a Goldwater supporter in 1964 had not stopped President Lyndon Johnson from personally recruiting him to the post.

My first meeting with Bruce nearly a half century ago was at what is now the Trump Hotel in Washington; then it was “the old post-office building” housing certain government offices, including the commanding suite that came with Bruce’s job at USIA. I was little more than a year out of college and a top aide to Senator James L. Buckley (R., N.Y.), whose winning campaign I had helped put together. (The Buckley brothers, Jim and Bill, were close to Shakespeare, Bruce’s boss, hence the connection.)

By this point, Bruce had already built a formidable body of work in documentary film-making, putting his name to everything from the 90-minute JFK: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums, made as a tribute after Kennedy’s assassination, to assorted pro-American films with narrators such as Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck. Perhaps the most effective American propaganda film ever was his Oscar-winning short on the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Politburo knew who he was and hated him.

Bruce was as precise in his language when writing and speaking as he was in making his films. He checked and rechecked facts to be absolutely correct and presented the other side fairly, to a fault. On a personal level, his trademark was self-deprecating humor. In public, he seemed serious and stern; in private, he was the understated wit. He had plenty of liberal friends who respected his integrity and humanity; his work on a film documenting Jackie Kennedy’s trip to India had led the Kennedy family to select him personally for Years of Lightning. And his mentorship of future conservative leaders and writers had a profound impact on the movement.

There are many Bruce Herschensohn stories, but there’s perhaps no more fitting way to close than with the story of how he entered the conservative movement. What some now call “the deep state” back then consisted of those in the State Department, USIA, and CIA who thought the best way to fight communism was with socialism. Senator J. William Fulbright (D., Ark.), a segregationist who was not especially fond of blacks or Jews, was also the U.S. Senate’s premier “anti-anti-Communist.” He opposed the USIA’s anti-Soviet message. When Bruce appeared on Senator Buckley’s Report to Constituents statewide television program and called Fulbright, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “naive and stupid,” I suggested that we edit that out. Bruce insisted that, if it was not a problem for Senator Buckley, the show should air as it had been recorded. My warning to both of them went unheeded, and Bruce’s remark saw the light of day.

Public controversy of course ensued, and when Bruce refused to apologize, Shakespeare had to fire him to placate Fulbright. Shakespeare felt terrible, and so did I, but Bruce felt liberated. He only had one problem: “I don’t have a job,” he said. “Can you get me some speaking commitments? I’ll even speak for free.” Thankfully, we could, and once he hit the speaking circuit, Bruce became a big draw. Soon, he was being paid. His love of country inspired young people, and he would develop a national following that stayed with him after he returned to Los Angeles as a top-rated conservative television and radio commentator.

Bruce was so many things in his life: A documentary producer and director; a writer of screenplays, music, columns, and books; a lecturer and debater; a television and radio commentator; a foreign-affairs expert and senior fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy; and a mentor to generations of professional conservatives. He had a profound impact on countless others along the way, myself included. I’m honored to have known him, and to honor him here. He will be missed.