Remembering Bill Rusher

(Jenny Powell)



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.


May 16, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 9

Books, Arts & Manners
  • William Voegeli reviews The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama.
  • Michael Knox Beran reviews Bismarck: A Life, by Jonathan Steinberg.
  • Robert VerBruggen reviews Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, by Bryan Caplan.
  • Jay Nordlinger on his friendship with the late composer Lee Hoiby.
  • Ross Douthat reviews The Conspirator.
  • John Derbyshire contemplates the fragility of civilization.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .