Bill Buckley was the founder and editor of NR, and the fount of much of its cheeky personality. Bill Rusher became, early in the magazine’s life, the publisher who made sure the bills were paid, the bad cop in dealing with young staffers’ derelictions, and a guardian of ideological discipline. Outside the walls of 150 East 35th Street, he was also a serious presence — a consummate debater, a mentor of young conservatives, and a skilled political operator, the man most responsible for keeping the Draft Goldwater movement going and, thus, for fostering the shift in the Republican party that eventually gave us President Reagan.
David Frisk, a young newspaperman turned academic, has done a superb job of chronicling the life and times of William A. Rusher, from his discovery as a high-school freshman that, as he later put it, “I am 100 percent a political animal,” through his years as a lawyer and Senate investigator of Communist subversion, on to 31 years as publisher of National Review, and finally to retirement in his beloved San Francisco.
Rusher was born in Chicago, but he was only six when his parents moved to Long Island. Evan and Verna Rusher were staunch Republicans, and Bill’s first political memory was the Landon debacle of 1936 — he told Frisk that he could barely drag himself to school the day after the election. But so far from killing his interest in politics, the defeat stoked it.
Although many of his friends thought the Ivy League too “upper-class,” Bill went to Princeton, like his future NR colleagues James Burnham and Frank Meyer before him, and flourished there, especially in the Whig-Clio debating society. But unlike Burnham and Meyer, he did not go on to Oxford, but instead (after a boring stint in India as a supply officer during World War II) enrolled at Harvard Law School. There he again threw himself into politics, revitalizing the Harvard Young Republican Club, which soon became a huge presence on campus. Frisk gives a hilarious account of one of Rusher’s maneuvers — placing a spy in the Young Democrats. Rusher, Frisk writes, “felt speechless for one of the few times in his life” when the spy called to tell him he had just been elected president of the YDs. There was a glorious uproar when, using Truman’s “ineptitude” as his excuse, the spy resigned and rejoined the YRs.
Despite the time he spent on politics at Harvard, Rusher did well enough in his studies to be hired by a prestigious Wall Street law firm. He was well paid, which permitted him to indulge his developing taste for good food and wine, but he found the atmosphere too hushed, and the work uninteresting. Also, by that time he had read Whittaker Chambers and become a passionate anti-Communist. When his older friend Robert Morris became chief counsel of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, he asked Rusher to become his deputy.
Much of that I knew, though not in the rich detail Frisk provides. What I did not know about was Rusher’s political odyssey during his pre–National Review days. His senior thesis at Princeton was titled “The Progressive Element in the Republican Party from 1936 to the Present,” and a progressive is what Rusher considered himself. Not, to be sure, a Teddy Roosevelt Progressive, but one who sought “moral and material progress.” Progressivism, for Rusher, “connote[d] activity, movement forward, constructive processes.” After the war, Frisk writes, “Within his party, Rusher still preferred the East Coast–oriented elite to the Middle American, small-town Republicans.” He supported first Dewey and then Eisenhower over Taft, partly for that reason, but even more because Taft had opposed our entry into World War II (which Rusher had passionately supported) and because Rusher believed Taft would not vigorously prosecute the Cold War. Dewey’s narrow defeat was as painful to him as Landon’s crushing one had been. Then, with Eisenhower’s election, “he experienced ‘a sense of joy I had not previously known’ in 16 years of watching politics.”