Appreciating Bill Rusher's Political Genius

William A. Rusher, 87, was a conservative writer and the longtime publisher of National Review magazine in its heyday.  He passed away last week.

In 1962, at the end of my freshman year at Columbia, a brilliant junior was passed over for editor-in-chief of the student daily in favor of a more orthodox liberal.  This told me that as an opinionated conservative, I had no future at the Daily Spectator.  (The passed-over junior was named Michael Mukasey.)

So along with some other contrarians on the Ivy League’s most liberal campus, I started a conservative magazine.  For the first issue, I wanted to highlight a rising conservative leader who had received less attention than William F. Buckley Jr., the charismatic young editor of National Review.  Buckley had inspired a sizable cohort of collegians who not only shadowed his every move but (in more than a few instances) were semiconsciously attempting to duplicate his patrician accent, with grotesque and hilarious results.

It didn’t take long to fix on William A. Rusher as the underappreciated rising conservative.  Like other political junkies at Columbia, I was a listener of the Long John Nebel radio talk show on WOR.  Unique in that era (or really any other), it ran live every weeknight, with all guests in the studio, from midnight to 5 a.m., and a half-hour break around 2:30 for lavish refreshments supplied by one of Nebel’s sponsors, the Carnegie Delicatessen and Restaurant.  Nebel’s interests later drifted in the direction of the occult and flying saucers, but in the early ’60s, the topics were often political, and the conservative position was often championed by Bill Rusher.

As a debater, Rusher, then in his late 30s, was unlike anyone I had ever heard.  Building on his background as a Senate counsel specializing in leftist subversion, he gave not an inch of turf and relentlessly closed off all avenues of escape for his hapless, cornered prey.  Alternately indignant and ironic, Rusher conceded not an iota of goodwill or cogency to his liberal adversaries, and more often than not, after five hours of hammering, left them blubbering masses of protoplasm.  It was politics as total war.  For a young conservative in an era when just about everything else in newsprint or on the air was smugly liberal, this was bracing stuff.

So I interviewed Rusher and wrote a profile of him that ran in our magazine.  He liked the piece and claimed I was the first person in the generation behind him—I was two decades younger—whom he could talk to more or less as an equal.

But I was far from his equal.  Indeed, I was completely in awe of him.  So he took me under his wing and introduced me to fine food, wine, music, and poetry, as well as the finer points of politics.  I was not the first or the last young man that Rusher attempted to civilize, but for me as for others I later compared notes with, it was a formative and exhilarating experience.  Five years or so after we first met, during a Rusher reporting trip to South Vietnam in 1967 while I was serving in the U. S. Army, we consumed a liquid lunch in a Saigon café and had a vehement argument, Nixon vs. Reagan, as to who the appropriate GOP candidate would be in the upcoming 1968 election.  (He was for Reagan, and as usual he was right.)  Eleven years after that, when I was running for the Senate in New Jersey against Bill Bradley, he recounted that lunch in a profile for the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine, in the same issue as Willie Morris’ profile of Bradley.

Thanks to Bill’s influence, I had two hitches as an editorial assistant at National Review, in the summer of 1963 and in 1965-66, during which I got a front-row seat for the legendary struggles between Frank Meyer and Jim Burnham.  Rusher and Meyer were the pro-Barry Goldwater (and later pro-Reagan) radicals, with the self-described Machiavellian Burnham constantly being courted (though never quite won over) by Nelson Rockefeller and his house intellectual, Henry Kissinger.  Buckley served as referee, working with tact and humility to keep the magazine (and in a larger sense the intellectual wing of the movement) stitched together.

I was fortunate in that my time as a hands-on Rusher protégé encompassed the two years before the Goldwater nomination and the first year or more of its aftermath, ending in early 1966 when I was drafted.  These were precisely the years when Rusher became a major behind-the-scenes power in the Republican Party.  Though his name seldom appeared in the paper, I was certain of his role because everything that he told me was happening or would happen in the party turned out to be true.  It was like being a fly on the wall in the secret meetings and public events where history was being made.  It gave me an optimism I have never lost about the upside possibilities of determined, persistent political activism.

Rusher was probably a more influential adviser to Ronald Reagan in the early years of Reagan’s elective career than anyone not living in California.  He introduced the Reagans to his Draft Goldwater co-conspirator, F. Clifton White, who managed Reagan’s truncated 1968 campaign to a surprising near-victory at the 1968 Miami convention.  Until the mid-1970s, when Reagan decided to challenge President Gerald Ford in the Republican primaries, Rusher was Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s eyes and ears when it came to national politics.  I had never even met Reagan when Rusher sent me to Sacramento in mid-1974 as the first full-time Reagan staffer tasked with preparing a 1976 presidential race at a time when the then-governor was still undecided about whether to run.  Rusher was a firm advocate of Reagan’s running, though the aftermath of Watergate, stagflation, and the 1974 Democratic election sweep left him so pessimistic about the GOP that he thought Reagan would have a better chance running as nominee of a new third party.  (I agreed with Bill and wrote many internal memos to that effect, but managed to hang on as director of research in the 1976 campaign when cooler heads prevailed.)

The remarkably fruitful collaboration between Rusher and Clif White, which dated back to the days of the Thomas Dewey Republican hegemony in the politics of New York State, has been widely written about, though by no means sufficiently.  White had a remarkable grasp of people and of political intricacy, while Rusher was a confident strategist with a will of pure steel.

They were the first to bring sophisticated competence to conservative politics, and the impact of what they did is still with us.  It is thus no exaggeration to believe, as I do, that without Bill Rusher, the transformative victories of Ronald Reagan and of American conservatism in the nation and the world could not possibly have happened.