Another member of the founding generation of the modern conservative movement left us this past week. William A. Rusher was a tireless advocate for conservative causes spanning half a century and had careers as a successful attorney, associate counsel for the Senate internal security subcommittee and a syndicated columnist.
However, Mr. Rusher achieved his greatest fame as the longtime publisher of National Review - from being hired soon after its founding in 1957 until his “retirement” in 1988. While not as celebrated as editor William F. Buckley Jr., Mr. Rusher was just as important to the growth of modern conservatism. He worked tirelessly in those years to make National Review a success. He also was a key architect in the founding of Young Americans for Freedom in 1960, the conservative takeover of the Young Republicans, the New York Conservative Party in 1961, the American Conservative Union in 1964 and in the seminal but unsuccessful candidacy of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. In fact, Mr. Rusher had an uncanny knack for being at the precise intersection of policy development and political activism, something to which many aspire, but which few achieve.
Always an original thinker, Mr. Rusher was an advocate of the “fusionist” school of conservatism, which held that freedom and tradition were not incompatible, but indeed were both critical to the development of a stable and free society. This division presaged the tension between modern-day economic conservatives and social conservatives, each of whom emphasizes a different part of the conservative tradition. Both sides would do well to look to the writings of Bill Rusher to find ample evidence of common ground.
Mr. Rusher was a tireless speaker on American campuses in the heyday of the campus revolt. He was famous for giving no intellectual quarter. While Buckley gently pricked and probed for weaknesses in his ideological adversaries, Mr. Rusher was unforgiving and consistent, boring in on opponents’ vulnerabilities until he felt that his conservative arguments had emerged triumphant for all to see. All of his skills as lawyer and orator were on display when he starred in the wonderful PBS debate series “The Advocates” in the late 1970s.
In the wake of the GOP Watergate disaster of 1974, Mr. Rusher became convinced that the only viable political vehicle for conservatives lay in the formation of a new political party. To that end, he wrote the book “The Making of the New Majority Party” and advocated for years that conservatives dedicate themselves to the development of the new party. The enterprise really never took off, primarily because he could never persuade the most prominent national conservative to abandon the GOP. Fortunately, Ronald Reagan remained committed to the Republican Party and was elected president in 1980. Mr. Rusher had the wrong vehicle but clearly the right ideological agenda.
Late in the Reagan administration, on one of his frequent visits to the White House, Mr. Rusher reflected on Reagan’s work. “You know,” he said to one of the staff members, “what he has done will long be studied and remembered. He’ll be recognized as one of the great presidents in our history.”
It is not hyperbole to suggest that Reagan never would have had that chance but for the efforts of many great men and women who nurtured the conservative cause. Bill Rusher clearly is at the head of that class.
Frank Donatelli is chairman of GOPAC.