NR Digital

Remembering Bill Rusher

by NR Symposium

Debater

The young Bill Rusher took to debating pretty much as the circling shark takes to soft human tissue — with hungry purpose and to startling effect. Rusher received his basic training in the blood sport at Princeton’s Whig-Clio society and then polished his skills as the feisty co-founder of the Young Republican Club at Harvard Law School. (For a sense of the correlation of forces in Cambridge, think of a School for Entrepreneurship at Moscow University along about the middle of the last century.) Rusher took his graduate debate work in Washington, chasing furtive Communist witnesses down dark testimonial holes for the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. It was there, as a Senate investigator and quasi-prosecutor, that he developed the ultimate debate weapon: what we came to call The Rusher Question.

The Rusher Question never elicited, nor indeed expected the courtesy of, any answer. It was in business for itself. In its basic form, it went something like this: “Mr. Smith, if you were not at the hotel on the night in question — despite the fact that, as their testimony will show, you were observed in the dining room by the maitre d’, two waiters, three hotel guests, the sommelier, and the busboy — where exactly do you claim that you were that night?” The normal human response to such questions is some variation of: “Abba, dabba, dabba.” As the witness fumbled through his memory files, Rusher would add helpfully, “I would remind you, Mr. Smith — if that is in fact your real name — that you are under oath.”

Over the years, from the Senate to the college speaking circuit to the television studio, Bill Rusher became the premier debater on the American Right. Our own indigenous Mountie, he almost always got his man. Only a single exception sticks to the brainpan on this sad day. Rusher spent years, almost a decade, chasing Jacob Javits around the ideological block. Time and again, New York’s über-liberal Republican would manage to skip past the snares set for him by Trapper Bill. In a 1968 book, Rusher finally conceded defeat. In a passage that deserves at least a footnote in the history of polemical writing, Rusher issued this verdict: “As for Jacob Javits, you pays your money and takes your choice. It is simply not possible to believe that his Communist contacts in 1945 and 1946 were all totally innocent. But was he a Communist sympathizer, as some of his critics believe? Or was he merely a garden-variety opportunist, as his more candid defenders contend?” That is a quintessentially Rusherian judgment, even if one doubts that Javits’s defenders would ever so contend.

Bill Rusher could have written the book on debating and, in due course, he did. He published How to Win Arguments in 1981 — explaining structure, pace, diversion, jujitsu moves, time-buying techniques, the whole bag of tricks. What’s not in there is what Bill Rusher brought preeminently to the public arena: a competitive fire born of utter conviction. I can see him now — coiled forward in his chair, the klieg lights glinting off his no-nonsense glasses, measuring his opponent with gimlet eye, awaiting the opening that he knows will surely come. In wobbly moments, you could almost feel sorry for the poor bastard across the stage from him.

For an entire generation of American conservatives, Bill Rusher was our lawyer. We were all his pro bono clients, deeply grateful that he cared so much, and that he pressed our case so effectively.

– Mr. Freeman collaborated with Mr. Rusher in various radio and television projects for more than three decades.

Founding Father

In the early 1950s, American conservatism was in disarray. Lionel Trilling dismissed it as a series of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” But then a handful of conservatives came together and transformed the political and intellectual climate, paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s historic victory in 1980. William A. Rusher was one of those indispensable conservative founding fathers.

“Ronald Reagan did not spring full-blown from the brow of Jove in 1980 or any recent year,” Rusher wrote shortly after Reagan’s election — and as usual he was right. The first postwar American presidential nominee to run openly as a conservative was Barry Goldwater — and Bill Rusher played a pivotal role in securing Goldwater’s nomination.

Although Goldwater lost the election, his nomination had world-shaking consequences. As my colleague Lee Edwards recounts in his contribution to this symposium, the Goldwater campaign raised up American conservatism’s greatest standard-bearer: Ronald Wilson Reagan. If Bill Rusher had not thought up the Draft Goldwater Committee in 1961 — and persisted until it became a reality — Ronald Reagan would not have become president in 1980.

Besides paving the way for that landmark election, the Goldwater candidacy mobilized a small army of conservative activists. Thousands of young conservatives were inspired to become politically active — including, as it happens, me. I took my commitment to Goldwater seriously — so seriously, in fact, that I almost dropped out of my MBA program at the Wharton School to volunteer. Fortunately, I didn’t. I received my degree the month after Goldwater lost in a landslide to LBJ. But like so many other men and women active in American conservatism today, I date my political coming-of-age to the Goldwater campaign of 1964 — which would never have happened without the behind-the-scenes efforts of Bill Rusher.

He was one of those remarkable people whose names don’t appear very prominently in the history books, but whose contributions help to define an age.

– Mr. Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

Churchillian

Churchillian? If we mean by that a man who had a natural ear for good words in prose and poetry, committed them to memory without seeming effort, and recalled them on the right occasions, then Bill Rusher was Churchillian.

If we mean by that a man who distilled a wide reading into truths that could be remembered and applied to his own choices, then Bill Rusher was Churchillian.

If we mean by that a man who learned from Churchill all his life, who saw into his character as a gentleman would see, then Bill Rusher was Churchillian.

If we mean by that a man whose wit was biting but never unkind, whose sense of humor was hilarious to the place of danger on formal occasions, then Bill Rusher was Churchillian. You would know this if you had traveled to Asia with him, for on that trip he would read the Buddha, and spout his aphorisms until they made a theme sometimes wise, more generally strange and funny. I can hear Bill at this moment, intoning to explain some odd sight: “Change is the fate of all compound things, quoth the Buddha.” I can hear him reciting Longfellow as we strode across a Japanese formal garden. He had an ear not only for the noble, but also for the incongruous.

There are differences between Bill Rusher and Churchill. Churchill would not, if he offered you a drink in his home, hand you a printed menu, accurate as to inventory, that he had prepared himself. Churchill did not have his bookcases built with spaces shaped for the specific books and other objects that would be in them. Churchill, said his wife, was a “sporting man, who liked to give the train a chance to get away.” Rusher would speak sharply to Churchill about that, as he did to me.

I never got to work at National Review, but I went there plenty. After I worked with Bill Rusher, I did not think it was Bill Buckley who gave the place what tidiness it had. The two Bills collaborated rather on its wisdom, its principle, and its wit.

Like Churchill’s work, that of Rusher lives because it gives us a model and a chance today. We owe him a debt, to be paid in love and memory.

– Mr. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, was director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill.

Young Republican

Bill Rusher was the man behind the Young Republican throne during much of the 1950s and ’60s. He was the strategist and supreme decision maker, in league with his longtime friend, master tactician F. Clifton White.

Bill plotted and Clif executed the election of numerous chairmen of the Young Republican National Federation, starting with the 1953 convention in Rapid City, S.D. There, the 30-year-old attorney was dubbed “The Chairman” by delegates awed by his quietly successful backing of the candidacy of dark horse Sullivan Barnes as YRNF chairman.

The Rusher-White team went on to a string of YR — and numerous senior GOP — victories, including the election of Charlie McWhorter, co-founder with Bill of the Harvard Young Republican Club in 1946, as YRNF chairman at the 1955 convention in Detroit. The 1957 convention in Washington saw the election of John Ashbrook, future Ohio congressman, presidential candidate, and key player with Bill and Clif White in the 1964 Draft Goldwater movement.

I first met Bill in 1953 and was elected the HYRC’s ninth president. Rusher, the first president, was followed by McWhorter and a string of future GOP activists, including Roger Allan Moore, longtime chief counsel of the Republican National Committee and equally longtime chairman of NR’s board of directors (dubbed “Colonel Moore” by Bill, who enjoyed devising such honorifics, for their joint appreciation of mint juleps), and Don Hodel, secretary of energy and the interior during the Reagan administration.

Frustrated by the suffocatingly leftist orientation of the aptly named Harvard Crimson, I founded in 1955 a weekly newspaper, The Harvard Times-Republican, a rogue project thoroughly opposed by the Harvard administration. Bill was instrumental in the project’s success, as organizational adviser and editorial contributor. Drawing on relationships he had developed as counsel to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, he recruited Senate Minority Leader William Knowland of California plus Sens. John Bricker of Ohio and William Jenner of Indiana for the paper’s advisory board, persuading each to visit Cambridge and address HYRC meetings.

One of his own guest editorials, “Cult of Doubt,” caught Bill Buckley’s eye, as had the paper’s founding, a month prior to NR’s. After receiving the first few issues, WFB mentioned our “maverick newspaper” in the magazine. And when he decided he should not continue as both editor and publisher of NR, he contacted Chairman Bill, launching the relationship that led to Rusher’s three decades of service as NR’s publisher.

When I last saw Bill, in October, I said, “Greetings, Mr. Chairman,” on entering his hospital room, whereupon the drowsing patient opened his eyes and smiled. We recalled our times with “The Commissioner,” Bill’s moniker for Clif White. As I left, Bill called me “Honest John,” his sobriquet for me for more than 50 years. He had clearly enjoyed himself.

Chairman Bill has passed on, joining so many of his generation. His concern and counsel for countless Young Republican activists will long remain an integral part of his remarkable legacy.

– Mr. Thomson’s career as international businessman, writer, and diplomat has included articles for NR over four decades.

Moment Conservative

If there was one person who shaped my political life and thought, it was Bill Rusher. I had always considered myself a “Republican,” but beyond that I knew nothing. As a matter of fact, I had to look up the New York Young Republican Club in the phone book when I settled in New York City after college in 1954.

At my very first meeting I met Bill, who took me under his wing and explained the facts of life as far as the rivalries inside the club were concerned. There were the White Shoes and the Dirty Necks. John Lindsay and Roswell Perkins led the White Shoes, and the other side was led by F. Clifton White, Charlie McWhorter, and Bill. I of course became a Dirty Neck.

Thanks to Bill, I learned not only the difference between a conservative Republican and a liberal one, but also that there was a difference between an instinctive conservative and a movement conservative, of which Bill was the quintessential example. It opened up a path to political activity that I have followed ever since. It led to my involvement in James Buckley’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1970, and eventually to my nomination by President Reagan as ambassador to Nepal — where Bill happily paid me a visit.

Thanks to Bill, my life has had a rich meaning for which I will always be grateful.

– Mr. Weil, former ambassador to Nepal, is an investment banker in New York City.

Memo from: WAR

Bill Rusher in shirtsleeves was unimaginable. He arrived at the office at 150 East 35th Street at precisely 9:15 every morning, shoes polished, in dark suit and fedora in winter, lighter suit and Panama hat in summer. He was in charge of the business end of NR: met the payroll, ordered the paper, negotiated with the printer, cajoled prospective advertisers, mollified the banks. The business end was in fine shape, prudently managed, but the rest of the outfit was his despair. Why couldn’t everyone else do things the right way, when the right way was so easy, so sensible? But what he had on his hands was a bunch of talented eccentrics who would have flunked out of any business school in the land.

This did not deter him from trying to whip us into shape. Memos flew from WAR’s third-floor office with such profusion that at one point they provoked massive retaliation from Bill Rickenbacker, who sent a memo of his own:

From: WFR
To: The Torrent Across the Hall

WAR’s memos addressed working hours (“The office day starts at 9:30 a.m.”), lunch hours (“Two-and-a-half-hour lunches are excessive”), and even the irresponsible way staffers tossed their personal letters into the outgoing mailbox unstamped. (Fat chance he had of fixing this one!)

He was the standing joke of the younger staffers, who made book on how long his newest secretary would last and were careful, if called to his office on a Friday, not to sit on the left-hand side of the couch because that was where the NR Bulletin he would take home to read over the weekend would be placed when it arrived.

But when things got really tough, when major internal problems occurred, what did we do? We called in what the junior staffers called the WAR Department.

The problem would be brought to Bill Rusher’s attention. He would call in the people involved one by one, ask all the right questions, consider the matter from every aspect, separating out the frivolous from the serious complaints, then call everyone back into his office and suggest the solution. He was almost always right on target.

Tease him we did, but live without him we could not. He was the ballast of our often wobbly ship of state.

– Miss Buckley, NR’s longtime managing editor, is the author of Living It Up with National Review.

Aphorist

William A. Rusher was many things: a political thinker, activist, debater, and bon vivant. He also was a lightning-quick wit, who unfailingly shared and generated laughter.

– As Bill Buckley details in United Nations Journal: A Delegate’s Odyssey, the FBI once phoned Rusher while vetting Buckley for a diplomatic post to which he had been appointed.

“Has Mr. Buckley done anything since 1969 that might embarrass the Nixon administration?” an FBI agent asked.

“No,” Rusher replied. “But since 1969, the Nixon administration has done a great deal that has embarrassed Mr. Buckley.”

– When challenged to explain what was wrong with big-government liberalism, he exclaimed: “Look around!”

He had several maxims by which he lived and which he cheerfully shared with others.

– First, there was Rusher’s Rule: “If you find a good thing, run it into the ground.”

– “Rusher’s Third Law: ‘Never cross Sixth Avenue if you can help it.’ That assumes that you are on the East Side to begin with.”

“What caused you to come up with that?” I wondered.

“Experience,” he said flatly.

– “When difficulties become too numerous, they start canceling each other out.” For example, “You’ve got to go to a party that you don’t really want to go to, but then you sprain your ankle.”

How lucky I was — and grateful I am — to have imbibed these and other distillations of Bill Rusher’s wisdom over nearly 30 years of friendship.

– Mr. Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

Publisher

When I was assistant publisher of NR, I worked closely with Bill Rusher, manning the barricades against our creditors. Cash was always scarce, and Bill was a master at juggling payments to vendors, knowing which ones he could string out and for how long. They screamed and stamped their feet, but somehow, some way, a check always arrived before they pulled the plug.

In 1982 a letter arrived from a subscriber saying that he had a plan that would dramatically increase our circulation. He would put up the princely sum of $1,000 to carry it out — provided someone would meet with him in Pennsylvania. Bill passed the letter along to me and asked my opinion. I was skeptical, but I thought I should investigate. I dutifully drove to Pennsylvania and met with the gentleman. His plan, it turned out, was that he would produce a TV commercial for NR. The only proviso was that we had to enlist the talent. Well, Charlton Heston was already a friend of the magazine, and we discovered that Tom Selleck was also a fan. And we had some footage of the pre-presidential Ronald Reagan from our 20th-anniversary celebration.

When I presented all this to Bill Rusher, he too was skeptical but agreed to give it a try. The result was NR’s first TV commercial — a classic, with Selleck, Heston, and Reagan singing the praises of NR. We received 25,000 new subscriptions in three weeks. Unheard of in that day and age!

At the end of the third week I got a call from Bill asking me to come to his office ASAP. When I walked in, I thought I was going to get a medal. Instead I was greeted by a red-faced Bill saying, “You have to stop the commercial — it’s going to put us out of business.” What had quickly come to Bill — but not to me because of my euphoria — was that all these new subscriptions were expenses that had to be met before we collected any money. The cost of printing, paper, and postage on 25,000 new subs was enormous. So I pulled the ad, and Bill’s blood pressure returned to normal.

The story had a happy ending. A large number of the please-bill-me-laters did pay, and we began running the ad again, which eventually resulted in the largest circulation increase in NR’s history. Bill could have taken the cash, but he decided to take a chance instead.

– Mr. Capano was NR’s publisher from 1991 until his retirement in 2006.

Travel Impresario

Mr. Rusher was not the favorite person of NR’s junior staff in the early Seventies. We knew that WFB had hired him not only for his business acumen, but also to be bad cop. But when he called us on the carpet for this or that, we felt that he didn’t have to be quite so good at being bad cop.

But even then, we couldn’t help enjoying his performances at editorial gatherings. He would always have some story to tell. It might be about some malfeasance by New York’s liberal Republicans, or something Governor Reagan had told him. But as likely as not, it would be about food, wine, or travel. He was a regular at some of New York’s finest restaurants and a member of its top two wine groups, the Commanderie de Bordeaux and the Chevaliers du Tastevin. (“What you have to understand about Buckley,” he once told us, “is that he still thinks wine ought to cost what his father told him it ought to cost.”) And he was an inveterate traveler. He frequently visited his favorite “pariah nations” — the countries hated by the Left: South Africa, South Korea, and the Republic of China — but he also loved driving trips in Europe. He himself had never learned to drive, but that was no obstacle. He could always find a friend or two who would be delighted to follow an itinerary lovingly planned by Bill Rusher.

I was never in on one of those jaunts, but I did get a taste of the Rusherian flair for trip-planning. After he had retired and moved to San Francisco, he still faithfully returned to New York for NR board meetings. One time he and I were seated together at the directors’ dinner, and I mentioned that I was going to be out his way for a family reunion. Whipping out his little black notebook, Bill determined that he was free the day I would be arriving, and why didn’t we drive out to Domaine Chandon? “You provide the car, I’ll provide the lunch,” he said.

Two months later, as I flew across the country, I found myself wondering what I would have thought in 1970 if someone had told me that I would willingly, indeed eagerly, sign on to spend a whole day in Mr. Rusher’s company.

He met me at baggage claim, the informality of a drive in the country signaled by a navy-blue double-breasted blazer instead of a gray business suit. We picked up the car, and he skillfully directed me. We were going out by the Bay Bridge, he told me, and would return by the Golden Gate, for the maximum of scenic beauty. On the way and over lunch we talked about everything — the exhilaration of the Contract with America and Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress; how well NR was doing under John O’Sullivan and Ed Capano; Anglo-Catholicism (he had converted some years earlier; I was in the midst of doing so); and, of course, food and wine. I had mentioned that I would need to fax to the office the work I had done on the plane, and as we drove back into San Francisco he announced that he had the solution. He directed me to the University Club, where he introduced me to the concierge and asked if I might use the club’s fax.

I drove north to my cousins’ house a few minutes later thinking that it had been a magical day.

– Miss Bridges, an NR editor-at-large, is co-editor of Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus.

Man behind the Scenes

The political calculus is clear: If Barry Goldwater had not run for president in 1964, Ronald Reagan would not have been elected president in 1980.

Goldwater gave Reagan the opportunity to make a remarkable TV address on his behalf, “A Time for Choosing,” which turned the Hollywood actor into a political star overnight and led to his running for governor of California and then president of these United States.

But Barry Goldwater would never have run for president if it had not been for — enter stage right — William A. Rusher.

In the late spring of 1961, Bill Rusher felt that a leadership vacuum had developed in the Republican party. Richard Nixon had been defeated by John F. Kennedy the previous November. General Eisenhower had retired to his farm. Nelson Rockefeller was too liberal for most regular Republicans.

The obvious man to fill the vacuum, Rusher was convinced, was Barry Goldwater. Goldwater had just appeared on the cover of Time, which described the senator as “the hottest political figure this side of Jack Kennedy.”

Rusher set to work, flying to Washington, D.C., where he tried out his thesis on Rep. John M. Ashbrook of Ohio, an old friend from Young Republican days. Ashbrook agreed to help.

Back in New York City, Rusher took another old friend to lunch, F. Clifton White. White was a tall, bow-tied professional politician, who knew the GOP’s nomination process better than anyone else in America. White readily enlisted in the cause.

In October 1961, Rusher, White, and Ashbrook convened a “hard core” of 26 conservatives — including members of Congress, Republican state chairmen, and businessmen — that would become the National Draft Goldwater Committee. Clif White was named chairman.

From the winter of 1961 until the fall of 1963, White traveled more than 1 million miles visiting friends, building an organization, identifying delegates. All along the way — which was filled with more than a few potholes — there was an ever-optimistic Bill Rusher encouraging White to stay the course.

Money was always a problem. Rusher called the first half of 1962 the draft movement’s “Valley Forge.” White was reduced to making long-distance telephone calls in lieu of flying. He spent money he had set aside for his son’s college education. At last, a discouraged White said the committee would have to “fold the tent,” but Rusher argued so persuasively that White agreed to keep going for another month.

At the last moment, Randy Richardson, J. D. “Stets” Coleman, Jeremiah Milbank Jr., and J. William Middendorf II came to the rescue. The latter pair became so proficient at producing cash that they were nicknamed “the Brinks Brothers.”

Barry Goldwater never burned with desire to be president. Whatever desire he had was nearly extinguished by Kennedy’s assassination. But he was persuaded to seek the nomination because so many young conservatives urged him to do so, and because he wanted to offer a choice and not an echo to the American people.

When Goldwater accepted the GOP’s nomination, he knew he would not have been standing before thousands of ecstatic conservatives in San Francisco if it had not been for the National Draft Goldwater Committee. And the committee’s godfather was Bill Rusher, nonpareil strategist in the rise of the Right.

– Mr. Edwards is distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation and the author of numerous books about the modern conservative movement.

‘Mr. Rusher’ the Gentleman

Does anyone ever remember Bill Rusher raising his voice in anger? I heard him raise his voice in amusement many times. His laughter was slightly more raucous than anything else in his temperament or manners. On my relatively narrow and brief friendship with him, however, I recognized that he was angry only by noticing that he was growing quieter and more intense rather than becoming louder or more boisterous.

That in no way meant that he swallowed his anger and went along with things he disliked. On the contrary. Bill was adamantine in defending what he believed or in advocating a political position. But he did so in terms that were always courteous in form even if explosive in content.

Such behavior is generally known as gentlemanly. Analysts of the gentleman as a moral species from Cardinal Newman to Shirley Robin Letwin have identified two very different traits that coexist in his character: a desire to put all other people at their ease and a firm determination not to be denied the regard owed to him. Thus the gentleman is invariably civil to others, but he will not tolerate incivility toward himself (or toward those who depend on his protection).

I think that perfectly describes Bill Rusher (though even Homer, another gentleman, in my view, nods occasionally). Bill was, of course, gentlemanly in more obvious ways. Most members of National Review’s staff referred to him as Mr. Rusher. That never seemed forced or “inappropriate” even in an office that was unusually lively and argumentative. He simply enjoyed their respect. He dressed in the neat and formal style of a member of the American establishment of his youth and early career. He had expensive tastes in food and wine, but his self-control meant that these never became vices. His manners were agreeable, his conversation drily witty. He had many lasting friendships, but he was ultimately self-contained. He never sought attention for himself as such, but when he needed it to make a point, he commanded it easily. Again, whether he was at a club table or in a television debate, he simply enjoyed the respect of those present.

It is an extraordinarily fortunate thing that someone with these highly unfashionable qualities of character became the fidus Achates to WFB’s Aeneas in the early days of National Review. Being number two is always difficult even when you realize that, for some inexplicable reason insisted on by the Cosmos, it is also necessary and right and, besides, unavoidable. WFB was a fizzingly brilliant number one — but his qualities of character did not exclude caprice. Bill Rusher often had to argue against editorial ideas and commitments that would capture tomorrow’s headlines but cost innumerable subscriptions. He sometimes had to urge worthy conservative positions that struck his boss as pedestrian. History was sometimes on the side of WFB, e.g., Bill Rusher’s desire for a national conservative party; sometimes on Bill Rusher’s side, e.g., WFB’s lack of interest in the Goldwater insurgency. Bill Rusher came close to resignation at least once.

Instead, he stayed — and helped to create a great magazine and a great political movement, to write books well regarded by the political professionals, to enjoy a separate career, vamping with his left hand as a debater and columnist, and to enjoy the respect of all who knew him and the affection of all who knew him well.

Most critics regard the gentleman as a vanishing species. Feminists in particular welcome his demise. Even some conservatives seem to prefer more dramatic and even vulgar advocates. Bill’s life and achievements, things accomplished rather than celebrated, are a decisive assertion that the gentleman is an indispensable support of any society that aspires to be both free and virtuous.

– Mr. O’Sullivan, an NR editor-at-large, is executive editor of Radio Free Europe–Radio Liberty.

Rusher and Poetry

Bill Rusher was an adult convert to Anglicanism. But our words, like our temperaments, are set earlier in life. His favorite poets were all Stoics. Life is short and not always sweet, and it ends. Whether another life follows it is as out of our ken as it is out of our control. What we can control is our emotions here and now.

Rusher would summon his poets over drinks after a fine meal. Just because life is short doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat well. His bards were not those of right-world — T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin. Rusher’s were Swinburne, Housman, Santayana, and Hadrian.

Swinburne is the odd man in that list. He would have called himself a Stoic, certainly an ancient Greek, but his moaning alliterations and his touch of hysteria forfeit his claim to the title. One evening Rusher performed sections of Swinburne’s long poem “Dolores” – 

O mystic and somber Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain?

It was like chugging White Russians.

I shared his love of Housman too much to be able to distinguish now my favorites from his. George Santayana was new to me. The Spanish Catholic atheist, who spent 40 amused years in this country, is remembered as a philosophy professor, but he was also a grave and able sonneteer. Rusher loved the sonnet that ends

 It makes me happy that the soul is brave,
And, being so much kinsman to the dead,
I walk contented to the peopled grave.

Hadrian, the second-century Roman emperor, is known for one short lyric written in his last days. Here is Byron’s translation:

Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav’ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
To what unknown region borne
Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
No more, with wonted humor gay,
But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.

The one time I seriously disappointed Rusher was when my wife and I, on a trip to Italy, passed up Hadrian’s Villa outside Rome for the gardens of the Villa d’Este. I had missed communing with the author of those lines for what Rusher called “a bunch of trick fountains.”

Poetry does not reason about serious things, it depicts them. When we read and remember it we mold ourselves; when we recite it we share what we have become. Reading is rare enough in this world, the courage to recite rarer still. Walk contented, my friend.

– Mr. Brookhiser, an NR senior editor, is the author most recently of Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement.

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