“We exist to make a point, not a profit” William F. Buckley once said about his opinion journal, National Review. The man Buckley entrusted to keep track of the magazine’s finances, Bill Rusher, became the individual most responsible for transforming conservatism from an intellectual movement into a political force.
Rusher joined National Review in 1957, serving as the journal’s publisher and as a senior editor. He had been active in Republican politics for fifteen years and had served as chairman of the board of directors for New York State’s Young Republican Association. He left his job as an associate at the Wall Street firm of Shearman& Sterling& Wright in 1956 to serve as counsel for the Senate Internal Security Committee, which investigated subversive activities and the communist espionage in America.
Like many of his contemporaries (he had been born in 1923 in Chicago; earned a bachelor’s degree at Princeton and a law degree from Harvard) he was introduced to conservatism through reading: Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom warned about the dangers of a planned economy; Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind taught him the traditionalist strain of Burkean conservatism; while Whittaker Chambers described the communist threat in Witness.
But it was Richard Nixon who made Rusher a conservative. In March 1954, the vice-president received orders from President Eisenhower to denounce Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The Californian gave a speech condemning the Wisconsin senator after McCarthy “browbeat” Brigadier General Ralph Zwicker, who promoted an officer who was a security-threat.
Rusher described it as a decisive moment in his life. In his 1983 book The Rise Of The Right (part memoir/part history of the conservative movement) he said Nixon’s speech led him to leave private law practice and was the impetus for his life as a conservative activist.
He made his most important contribution as a conservative activist in 1961, following Nixon’s defeat in the presidential election. The G.O.P. was in disarray: Eisenhower had retired a year before, Nixon was a political loser, and the party lacked a national leader. One day at lunch in Washington with his old Young Republican friend, John Ashbrook-a first term congressman from Ohio-, Rusher remarked: “you know…if we held a meeting of our old YR crowd today, I’ll bet it would be the third largest faction in the Republican Party.”
An idea was born. Rusher called another Young Republican ally, Clif White, and organized a meeting of twenty-six old YR friends who planned to make the GOP more conservative. White, the former president of the New York Young Republican Association, became the leader of this faction.
Twenty-two men met in Chicago on October 8, 1961. They quickly agreed that Barry Goldwater was the man needed to move the GOP to the right. The group called themselves the Draft Goldwater Committee, and asked Rusher to write a letter informing the Arizona senator of their plans. Clif White headed up an organization which intended to make Goldwater the party’s presidential nominee. Using their old YR contacts, White spent 1962 beginning the project.
A year later, the group met again. This time, fifty-five men showed up. But word leaked to the press about the operation. Goldwater was furious. He told White to end the operation. In early 1963, the Draft Goldwater Committee met once more. What should they do if the senator refused to get drafted? They wondered. Draft him anyway.
White believed Goldwater had a chance to expand the Republican electorate. He thought the Arizonan would attract enough support from the Midwest, the South, and the West to negate the Party’s power-base, the Northeast. These Eastern Republicans had controlled the presidential nomination process for over two decades and championed moderate candidates like Eisenhower, Nixon, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Pennsylvania governor William Scranton.
Conservatives insisted Goldwater would be competitive in a general election by reaching out to social conservatives, who were disenchanted with the liberal policies which led to the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll phase of the 1960s. This was the same constituency Richard Nixon would call “the silent majority” when he ran for president in 1968.
The Draft Goldwater Committee achieved the impossible dream. They nominated their man on the first ballot at the San Francisco Convention. In so doing, conservatives replaced the Eastern Establishment as the party’s dominant force.
Goldwater went down to a historic defeat that November, but the year was a watershed for conservatives: thousands of new activists came out and supported the cause (their names and contact information went into Clif White’s contact book) and Ronald Reagan became the new face of conservatism. The former actor and General Electric spokesman gave a rousing speech for Goldwater on October 27. “The Time for Choosing” made Reagan a political star overnight and helped propel him into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento two years later.
Liberalism blew up during the Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. The Great Society unraveled at home and racial unrest led to riots in American cities. Domestic discontent with the war led to student marches, burned draft-cards, and general chaos. The Democratic Party split on its support for Vietnam, eroding the president’s liberal base, and forcing Johnson to announce that he would not seek re-election.
The time was ripe for conservatives. Rusher wanted the GOP to nominate Ronald Reagan. He remained wary of Richard Nixon, who was making another attempt for the top spot on the ticket. Unlike most prominent Republicans, Nixon worked tirelessly for Goldwater in 1964. He hired the young editorial writer Pat Buchanan to ingratiate himself with conservatives. And he reminded Republicans that he was a man of experience, while Reagan had been in office for only a year and a half.
Ultimately he won the party nomination and went on to a narrow victory that November. Conservatives remained wary of the new president, but Nixon did little to offend him during his first two years in office. Then he began burning bridges, one after another.
The deficit exploded. He implemented wage and price controls to control inflation. His pursued détente with the Soviet Union. He sought rapprochement with the Chinese Communists.
That was the last straw for Rusher. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, reached out to Mao Tse Tung. The Chinese were willing to talk if the Americans helped them land a spot on the United Nations Security Council. Heretofore, the UN recognized Taiwan as its Chinese representative, which isolated the mainland from the international community. Nixon agreed to go along with Mao. Subsequently the People’s Republic of China got its seat on the UN Security Council. Taiwan was ultimately expelled from both the Security Council and the General Assembly.
This incensed Rusher, who’d made several trips to Taiwan over the years and considered it a bulwark against communist aggression. Most conservatives agreed. William F. Buckley, Jr. accompanied Nixon on his famous trip to China. While most of the mainstream press heralded the president’s meeting with Mao, Buckley wrote solemnly: “We (the United States) have now lost any remaining sense of moral mission in the world.”
In 1972 Rusher supported John Ashbrook’s attempt to win the Republican nomination. When Ashbrook came up short, Rusher penned a column calling the 1972 election “our winter of discontent.” Unlike his fellow editors at National Review, he saw no benefit in Nixon’s re-election.
For a time, Rusher thought the GOP was no longer the vessel conservatives should use. He proposed a new political party combining economic and social conservatives, and asked Ronald Reagan (who’d re-entered private life in 1975) to run as its presidential candidate. Reagan demurred, and tried to battle Gerald Ford for the party’s 1976 nomination.
Rusher abandoned his idea of new party, but continued advocating conservative policies. He did so in his syndicate column, on the public speaking circuit, and as a debater, in addition to his responsibilities at National Review. When Reagan won the White House, the New York Times showed him reading his favorite journal with the ad: I got my job from National Review. Twenty ears after Rusher pushed conservatives into the political arena, they captured the White House.
The publisher spent the 1980s as a champion of the Reagan Revolution. He retired from National Review after turning 65. He moved to San Francisco in “retirement” and became a fellow at the Claremont Institute. He continued his newspaper column until February 2009, a time when some wondered if conservatism was dead.
Barack Obama’s presidency has reinvigorated the conservative movement. The 2012 election will be, as Ronald Reagan famously put it, a time for choosing. But William Rusher won’t be around to see it. He died on April 16, 2011, at his California home.
He won’t be forgotten. Conservatives will always remember Bill Rusher as the man who shaped conservatism into the dominant political force it has become in American politics.