BOOK REVIEW: ‘If Not Us, Who?

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IF NOT US, WHO? WILLIAM RUSHER, NATIONAL REVIEW, AND THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT
By David B. Frisk
ISI Books, $34.95, 517 pages

For many of us, it was a tale of two Bills. In the late 1960s, when I was hired by Bill Buckley to come to work for National Review, my first assignment was to do a cover profile of New York City Mayor John Lindsay. I was told to go talk to NR’s publisher, Bill Rusher, who had intimate knowledge of New York politics.

I trotted up the stairs, knocked sharply on his office door, temporarily unguarded, turned the knob and pushed. It apparently was a well-oiled door, and it flew open. I said something like “Oops,” semistumbled inside, gave it another shove, and it closed with a bang. Another “Oops,” and I announced myself and stated my business to the meticulously groomed and elegantly dressed man watching me thoughtfully from behind his desk.

“I see,” he said. “First, the door.” He stood, walked to the door, smartly twisted the knob and pulled it slowly toward him. “This is how you open a door.” Then he put both hands on the door, turned the knob and gently pushed it shut. “This is how you close a door.”

“There,” he said. “First lesson completed.” He invited me to sit, then proceeded to explain New York politics in a way that provided the basis for the Lindsay article - an article that was reprinted in bulk and distributed widely by New York’s Conservative Party, which William A. Rusher played a key role in founding and which would go on, with James L. Buckley as its candidate, to win a U.S. Senate seat (and would have held it, had Daniel Patrick Moynihan not decided to run in 1976).

Later, when I had moved to Washington to work for a vice president, and then a president, in trouble, Rusher would continue to provide what was often invaluable advice.

As David B. Frisk shows us in this finely tuned and richly detailed biography, Rusher was one of the most respected figures in the American conservative movement, a strategist, thinker and organizer; a founder of Young Americans for Freedom and the American Conservative Union; a television presence during the 1970s as conservative spokesman on the debate program “The Advocates”; and a fine writer whose 1984 “The Rise of the Right” is a conservative classic.

Among his duties as NR’s publisher were to see the bills were paid; circulation properly balanced; assets handled intelligently; and donors, contributors and readers - to say nothing of staff - kept happy and enthusiastic. No small order at a dissenting magazine of opinion. But he brought it all off, with flair. “Without his prudence as a manager, according to Priscilla Buckley, ‘there’s a good chance’ the magazine ‘might not have succeeded,’” Mr. Frisk writes .

It went beyond prudent management. When Rusher signed on with William F. Buckley Jr. two years after the magazine’s founding, he did so with the understanding that he’d have a voice in editorial decisions and direction. And the voices at the magazine in those days were strong, the ideas often conflicting, the debates at the editorial meetings fierce.

David Frisk does a good job of describing those clashes, especially the ones between James Burnham and Rusher. To some of us who were there, it often seemed that Burnham, with his quiet wit and wry sense of humor, took a measure of delight in baiting Rusher, who came to the meetings armed with suggestions for what he viewed as serious editorial topics that were being neglected.

There was a danger, Rusher thought, that a serious rift could open between NR and Washington, where movement conservatives were gaining increasing influence, while NR, with its literary tendencies, could become too New York and thus politically irrelevant.

“Rusher clearly diverged from others on the central question of what sort of magazine National Review should be. While Burnham … and Buckley believed in having an outstanding magazine first and a useful political product second, Rusher could remind strong people that his political knowledge and the movement’s need for leadership should influence their decisions. He could say unpopular things to colleagues and others because of his widely conceded knowledge and… his wit, good manners, and sheer sincerity.”

As a force in the Draft Goldwater movement, Rusher was instrumental in keeping the ideas and principles that animated that movement alive until they took root in the candidacy of Ronald Reagan. “Without his stubbornness and presence of mind in preserving the Goldwater movement,” Mr. Frisk writes, it is plausible to consider that Ronald Reagan’s ultimate election might never have happened.”

But it did happen. “If not us, who, and if not now, when?” With Ronald Reagan in the White House, and with the “whos” and “whens” satisfactorily answered, at least for one active life span, Rusher retired from NR in 1988, leaving New York for San Francisco, where he continued to write his column and lend his advice and counsel to a variety of conservative causes and organizations, among them the Claremont Institute.

In 2006, this note was forwarded to me by Linda Bridges, my longtime friend and colleague from National Review and co-author of “Strictly Right,” our book about Bill Buckley and American conservatism:

“Linda - I am about two-thirds of the way through ‘Strictly Right’and I think it’s wonderful! It’s the best account of NR, and of Bill’s connection with it, that has ever been written - and it has long been needed. My congratulations to you and John Coyne.”

The writer was Bill Rusher, who had taught me how to open and close doors. And what he said about our book on Bill Buckley might well be said of David Frisk’s fine book on him - the best that has been written, and long needed.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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