The Corner

‘Mr. Rusher, the President is calling’

NOW IT CAN BE TOLD 

By William A. Rusher 

January 27, 1989  

From The Affair of a Couple of Phone Calls to “Mr. Rusher, the President is calling,” the outgoing publisher looks back (mostly) fondly on 31 years lashed to NR’s masthead, and looks forward to the next generation.

“This is your office,” Bill Buckley told me solemnly. It was Thursday morning, July 25, 1957, and I had just ended a nine-year career as a practicing lawyer — seven and a half of them as an associate in Wall Street’s largest law firm, and 17 months as associate counsel to the U.S. Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee to join National Review as its publisher. We were in the second-largest office in the magazine’s premises, which were then in a rather dingy building at 211 East 37th Street, just east of Manhattan’s Third Avenue.

Bill himself had held the titles of both editor and publisher since the magazine’s inception in November 1955, and his decision to give the latter job to me indicated that the double burden was becoming onerous — and, presumably, that he had a fair degree of confidence in me.

He probably had more confidence in my ability to handle the job than I did myself. It wasn’t altogether clear to me just what a “publisher” did — particularly when (as was also true in the case of Henry Luce’s publications) the editor owned the voting stock. Presumably I would be in charge of the “business side” of the magazine; but Bill had also promised me that I would have the rank of a senior editor, and thus would qualify to attend all major editorial conferences. It certainly sounded interesting, and my enthusiasm for National Review (I had been a subscriber from the start) overwhelmed my reservations.

Temperamentally, though, I’ll admit that I had a little difficulty adjusting to the atmosphere at National Review. I had spent most of my working life (up to that point) in a huge Wall Street law firm. National Review probably had fewer than 25 full-time employees, and the general mood of the place was, to put it mildly, a world away from the atmosphere in a Wall Street law office. I felt rather like a German submarine captain who had signed on as first mate on a pleasure yacht.

Bill considered it a bit of a coup that the associate counsel to a Red-hunting Senate committee would be willing to toss up that job to become publisher of his little magazine. (Its paid circulation — the first statistic I mastered — was just under 16,500 at the time.) So, determined to make a splash with the news, he drafted a press release and hurled it broadcast at a startled world.

Amazingly, the New York Times reported the event on the first page of its second section. But the story, headline and all, measured about one inch, and it got one crucial detail wrong: National Review’s new publisher, it advised its readers, would be one “William A. Pusher.”

It was on that first day that I met Jim McFadden, whose title was assistant to the publisher and who, therefore, would henceforth assist me. Jim was ready with a proposal for action. “We might want to try some direct mail,” he suggested. I nodded gravely. (But what on earth was direct mail? And did its existence imply the existence of something more arcane still, called indirect mail?) I kept my mouth shut, and slowly — thanks largely to Jim — learned the ropes.

#more#

Sometimes we learned them together. Once Jim managed to make a deal with a publication called The Southern Agriculturist, which had a huge circulation among reputedly conservative Southerners. In return for giving that publication a full page in National Review in which to promote itself, National Review would get a much smaller but still potentially valuable ad in The Southern Agriculturist.

The trade was arranged and the ads were run. Jim and I were rather pleased with the one we had inserted in The Southern Agriculturist, offering readers a trial subscription to National Review. Then somebody pointed out that we had forgotten to mention the price!

Whatever the average publisher did, I soon learned that my job involved, inter alia, actually bringing into being any scheme that caught fire in the highly combustible kindling of the Buckley mind.

Once, for example, Bill issued formal invitations to all National Review subscribers in the New York metropolitan area to meet the editors over cocktails in the elegant nearby offices of the Buckley family oil business. We were ready for anything up to 25 or thirty people, but at the appointed hour about two hundred thirsty conservatives showed up and I had to make fast arrangements to transfer the whole affair to the larger (but still overburdened) premises of a hotel across the street.

Then there was what came to be known around the office as The Affair of a Couple of Phone Calls. Nikita Khrushchev was to visit New York (the first Soviet Premier to do so — this was 1959), and local conservatives were outraged. Bill hit upon the idea of a mass protest rally in Carnegie Hall, and turned the project over to me (as publisher?). I warned him that arranging such a rally would be a tall order, but Bill dismissed my doubts. All it would require, he declared from the serene depths of ignorance, was “a couple of phone calls.”

Three weeks later — Carnegie Hall having been reserved, tickets printed and distributed, a series of speakers lined up, publicity arranged, and the entire junior staff of the magazine torn from their regular jobs and thrown into performing the innumerable tasks and errands that had to be performed — the rally was held. Piqued at my broad hints that he was good at thinking up work for other people to do, Bill volunteered to arrange personally for the music that I had declared would be necessary. (I had attended plenty of political rallies, and knew that there was nothing like a loud brass band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” to set a crowd’s pulses pounding.) So on the great day I arrived at Carnegie Hall — and found an organist sensitively playing a Bach fugue as the anti-Khrushchev protestors filed in!

But I wouldn’t want you to believe that the job of publisher of National Review was then, or is today, a series of ordeals. On the contrary, I can’t imagine a job being more fun. Running my mind back over the decades, I would certainly have to single out, as one of the truly great recurring pleasures of my years at National Review, the many times I have dined with Bill and Pat Buckley at their home. Typically the occasion will be one of our “editorial dinners,” held on those alternate Mondays when editorials are being written for a new issue. Only senior editors are invited from the magazine, but there will often be one or more outsiders present — fabulously interesting people drawn from Bill’s huge and highly eclectic circle of warm friends.

But it isn’t the friends, or even the editors, that make these occasions truly memorable: it’s the food. Pat Buckley is, among many other things, a genuinely great cook, and she has trained her kitchen staff to realize her highest conceptions. To tuck my feet under the Buckley dinner table is one of my life’s greatest satisfactions, and one I hope to experience often in the years ahead when I return (as I frequently shall) to New York on visits.

Careful study of National Review’s editors over the years has rewarded me with some unexpected insights. One, for example, is their touching dependence on the New York Times as a source of news. No magazine condemns the Times more roundly for its liberal biases — but none receives more of its information from that rightly suspect source, or is more resistant to information that has not received the imprimatur of publication there. For well over two years, from late 1961 to early 1964, I was privy to the innermost secrets of the burgeoning draft-Goldwater movement, and reported faithfully at our fortnightly editorial conferences on all important developments. Meanwhile the editors of the Times and the rest of the major media, any of whom would have given their pensions for such a source if they had taken the whole movement seriously, snoozed peacefully on, serene in the belief that, as James Reston put it, “Rockefeller is in no more danger of losing the [1964] nomination than he is of going broke.”

Try as I might, I couldn’t persuade National Review’s editors that the Times was simply wrong. They were for Goldwater, to be sure; but they received my optimistic reports with the sort of well-controlled pleasure displayed by parents whose retarded child has acquitted himself better than expected at school.

It was only when President Johnson, early in 1964, told a press conference that by his count Goldwater was ahead in the delegate contest that the Times took a serious look at our draft operation and confirmed his calculations. The next time I walked into an editorial conference, I was welcomed like a rich uncle.

What has made these three decades at National Review doubly gratifying, of course, is the fact that they coincided with, and indeed contributed substantially to, the success of the conservative movement.

One of our early advertising directors sought greener pastures not long after he told an advertising-agency executive that he was soliciting ads for National Review and was greeted by the response, “The National Review of what?”

It was a fair question. We were the only opinion journal of a minuscule intellectual movement; and that movement’s first ventures into politics were predictably unsuccessful. But slowly the invitations arrived — first to Bill, then to me, then to others on the staff: Would we appear on this radio talk show, or that television program, to explain our curious conservative viewpoint? Later came proposals for a speech (a paying speech!), a column, a book. In the fullness of time one of our subscribers was elected Governor of California by a million votes, and four years later Bill’s brother (the sainted Jim) became a senator from New York. In 1981 I finally had the experience that never grows routine, when our switchboard operator told me simply, “Mr. Rusher, the President is calling.”

At last, like the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, I looked in the mirror and said, “What fate decrees must come, and time — how strangely does it go its way.” Why do I feel this urge to move on, and leave the magazine that has been so good to me in younger and more vigorous hands? One might as well ask what makes a trumpeter swan leave its Canadian summer haunts for Texas when the first cool breezes of autumn whisper their intimation.

It’s an instinct of some sort, that’s all — a serene acquiescence in the mysterious economy of nature. I will keep on writing, and speaking, and playing a little politics, of course. But I want to spend part of the time left to me probing some of those deeper questions that will confront mankind in the twenty-first century, as the secular-humanist solutions that have been in vogue ever since the Enlightenment are seen, beyond argument, to have failed.

And I would like, too, to encourage the oncoming generations of youthful conservatives. They are the troops on which all else depends. We must seek them out, teach them everything we can, put their feet on the upward path, and cheer them on their way.

 

They must dare greatly, building on what has been accomplished but demanding, and achieving, even more. The election campaign just concluded demonstrates all over again how bankrupt liberalism is. Let us demonstrate in our national political life — as National Review has demonstrated across the years in the field of journalism — how well conservatives understand the profound imperatives of human nature, the proper design of human society in the light of those imperatives, and the (limited) role of government in the ongoing drama of mankind.

For more on William A. Rusher, see this memorial symposium.  

NRO Staff — Members of the National Review Online editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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