There are two kinds of conservatives: those aware of our roots and those not. We’ve just been given an effective way to tell them apart. When I hit the first kind with the news that Bill Rusher died, they will lower their heads and thank God for his birth and his works and plead for the sanctification of his soul. The second kind will just ask, “Who?”
All media are from time to time guilty of a lovely sentiment. You’ve heard those brief mentions on TV about the loss of “our dear colleague who may not have been a recognizable name but who really made this organization what it is today.” Almost always the gesture is highly exaggerated and delivered as a humanitarian favor to the departed colleague’s family. Not so with William A. Rusher. Political conservatism might have eventually found its way to America’s center stage without Bill Rusher, but that’s not the way it happened.
In 1960 I started a radio talk show on WINS in New York. I was a liberal; anti-Communist, to be sure (there were a lot of anti-Communist liberals, particularly those who’d spent time in Communist countries), but I was flaming with liberal fire and screaming the liberal line. Bill Rusher was the hands-on, make-it-happen man for Bill Buckley’s nation-changing magazine, “National Review.” Rusher turned me into a life-long conservative in mid-air; not with any one line, comment or historical riff. He just made me aware of how utterly unprepared I was to defend liberal principles.
To say that Rusher was a “take-no-prisoners” debater would be to impute an undeserved softness to his style. One night Dr. Homer Jack, head of SANE (The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), a far-left front seeking the abandonment of America’s nuclear arsenal, got things going by saying, “My son and I recently visited Hiroshima.” After an unsurprising spiel about the horrors of nuclear war, Rusher leaned in and snarled, “Dr. Jack, I wonder if en route to Hiroshima you and your son had occasion to stop off at Pearl Harbor where the bodies of 1,102 American sailors are still entombed inside the hull of the battleship Arizona?”
In the 1950s Rusher told his conservative teammates, “I have met a man in the West we can support.” That was Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who, under the baton of Rusher and Clifton White, won the GOP nomination from moderate establishment giant Nelson Rockefeller. Let the world at large continue to believe the Goldwater campaign was a dismal failure, carrying only five states in the general election against incumbent Lyndon Johnson. The conservative world recognizes that Goldwater’s nomination broke the stranglehold of the GOP’s “Moderate Mafia.”
A curious conservative woman who’d “heard the name Bill Rusher” and followed conservatives’ lamentation at his loss, asked, “And where was Reagan during all this?” That’s the best question you could ask a Rusher fan. Ronald Reagan was busy learning conservatism from Bill Rusher, inside “National Review,” whose founder, Bill Buckley, freely admitted Rusher was as important as he was.
Long before Rusher retired from “National Review” in the late 1980s, I’d been treating discouraged conservatives with a bit of therapy straight from Bill Rusher. It’s the real-life version of the two drunks who stagger out of a bar on a rainy night and wrap themselves around a pole and look down into the reflection of the moon in a puddle. “If that’s the moon down there,” asks one of the drunks, “What are we doing way up here?” Those drunks were not really above the moon. But listen to all the GOP candidates today: The conservatives are “way up there”!
Shortly after Bill graduated Harvard, and aflame with his lonely vision of a conservative America, he set about finding one conservative, just one, in every state, to serve as a “can-opener” to move the nation rightward. It wasn’t always easy, before the middle of the last century, to find even one conservative in every state, but eventually he found one in every state except West Virginia.
He called upon a Harvard classmate from West Virginia who, although not a conservative, was a friend, and asked if he could recommend someone who might take the non-paying and thankless job of conservative can-opener for West Virginia. “I’ve got three possibilities in mind,” the classmate said. “I’ll get back to you.”
Two weeks later the classmate called and said, “Bill, I’m sorry. I struck out. The first person I thought of is going to run for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket. The second one plans to run for Congress on the Republican ticket.”
“And the third?” asked Bill.
“Bill,” said the classmate, “The third was just indicted for throwing a bomb out of a helicopter!”
Please forgive me for not citing the titles of Rusher’s books, the number of newspapers that ran his armor-piercing column, his pyrotechnic TV stint with PBS’ series “The Advocates,” his board memberships in conservative causes, etc. Those details are for obituaries. This is not an obituary.
I can’t write an obituary on Bill Rusher. He’ll always be too alive to me.