• David B. Frisk, If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement, ISI Books, 2012, $34.95.
RALEIGH — “We are all here,” William Rusher said at a conference of conservatives some years ago, “because we are not all there.” The line scored a laugh, but maybe Rusher was citing a wider reality. A reading of David B. Frisk’s If Not Us, Who? confirms that you had to be a bit crazy to attempt what Rusher and National Review did during the 1950s and 1960s.
Rusher perceived that the Democratic and Republican parties had sold out to the big-government ethos. On the other hand, the conservatives of the day included conspiracy-mongers, anti-Semites, racists, and assorted kooks. The task was to overcome such obstacles and advance the conservative cause to the point that it wielded power on the federal level.
The spearhead for this effort would be a magazine, National Review, out of New York, edited by William F. Buckley, published by Rusher, and with former communists such as James Burnham (The Managerial Revolution) and Frank Meyer in the background. The odds were against them, but this crew enjoyed considerable success.
If Not Us, Who? is the official, authorized story, starring Rusher as the unsung hero of the conservative movement. Those who want to know what Rusher said in a memo to Buckley in 1960 are certain to love it, but there’s plenty here for anyone not interested in such minutiae.
Frisk even outlines what Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky thought about his American followers such as Burnham, a “strutting petty-bourgeois pedant.” As it happened, communism also played a role in Rusher’s political odyssey.
The Harvard-trained lawyer served as a counsel for the Internal Security Subcommittee, where concern about communism made him a “militant conservative,” and got him tagged a McCarthyite. The trouble with McCarthy, Rusher said years later, after revelations from Soviet archives, was that “he didn’t know half of it. And none of us did.”
Rusher saw Buckley as “a literary man … starting a political movement was not really what he was about. It was very much what I was about.” Both were what would then be called “square,” fastidious about proper dress and manners. Buckley savaged the Beatles as “the crowned heads of anti-music.” Rusher supported conscription and called draft protesters “glue-sniffing creeps” who wouldn’t make good soldiers anyway.
Frisk packs in more material about Barry Goldwater than most readers will want to know, but the scene at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco will reward attention. Young Americans for Freedom plied San Francisco Bay on the “SS Young Conservative” cruise. YAF singers “The Goldwaters” performed at the Cow Palace. Then Barry Goldwater told the world that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” what Frisk calls the “fatal words.” The Republicans duly got their heads handed to them, but Rusher saw benefits.
“The Goldwater candidacy had given the conservative movement its baptism of fire,” he said. “It had bloodied an enormous number of conservative troops” and given the conservative movement control of the Republican Party … these were not negligible achievements.”
Goldwater was toast, but for the conservative movement it was “Neither Nixon Nor Woodstock,” as one chapter explains. Rusher saw “nihilism” behind the student radicals of the day. On the other hand, “a centrist or liberal-leaning Republican administration was a dangerous disappointment, and conservative politicians who didn’t attack one for such failings were shirking their responsibilities to the cause.” Nixon drew fire for wage-and-price controls and his overtures to Communist China.
By the late 1960s, California Gov. Ronald Reagan, a former liberal Democrat, became a possible conservative standard-bearer, but for Buckley and much of the National Review circle, Reagan was a “second-tier Hollywood type.” In this account, Rusher made Reagan “credible to Eastern intellectual conservatives.”
By 1976, Reagan had become “the brightest hope for national leadership” for movement conservatives. Buckley and Rusher, in turn, were also national figures due to programs such as “Firing Line” and “The Advocates,” both ironically on PBS.
If Not Us, Who? scores the Reagan years as good ones for conservatives. In 1987, National Review earned more than $1 million in gross advertising revenue, unheard of for an opinion journal. But after the Reagan years, Rusher wrote, “it was as if a great curtain had descended on a long and successful play. It was time for me to find new channels for my energy.”
He moved to San Francisco, a city he previously lamented as “infested with beatniks, acid-heads, bums, and weirdoes.” He remained involved in political issues such as the successful California Civil Rights Initiative against race and gender preferences in government. He saw the collapse of communist rule in Europe and he outlived Buckley, two years his junior.
Rusher, who passed away last year, believed that “the 21st century is quite likely to be a big improvement, in many respects, over the 20th.” That remains uncertain, but Rusher proves that even a “square” can make a difference through hard work, clear thinking, informed debate, and respect for facts. As one of his favorite poems says, “The truth is great, and shall prevail, when none cares whether it prevail or not.”
Lloyd Billingsley is a contributor to Carolina Journal.