I got this as a freebie for renewing my subscription to National
Review awhile back. (You can only have so many NR t-shirts
or coffee mugs.) And it finally percolated to the top of my to-be-read
pile. Written by David B. Frisk,
it is a hefty tome, 438 pages of text, over 60 pages of endnotes.
And what's it about?
It is a biography of William A. Rusher (1923-2011), the publisher of
National Review for about thirty of those years, from 1957 until
his retirement in 1988. In addition to his work at the magazine, Rusher
was also a political activist, heavily involved in an effort
to steer the Republican Party to a more consistently
conservative direction. Although his early GOP efforts were in
support of Dewey and Ike, he came around to a solid conservatism
after being disillusioned with the Eisenhower presidency.
Rusher was considerably different
from NR's famous editor, William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley was
born rich, comfortable moving in sophisticated society, totally
charming. Rusher was from a modest background, working his way into
Harvard Law, very much the practical politician, obsessed with
devising winning strategies. WFB was the golden
retriever in the limo, Rusher
the pitbull in the street.
It's surprising things worked as well as they did at the magazine.
Frisk does a good job of describing the inner wangling factions
at NR, often setting Rusher at odds not only with WFB, but
also with such eminences as James Burnham. There were disagreements
aplenty: what the overall tone of the magazine should be; which
political candidates should be supported, which dumped; just how
dismissive should the magazine be toward conspiracy theorists,
antisemites, and other fringe-dwellers. (Shrinking the tent of
acceptability is fine in theory, but once you start factoring
in the loss of subscribers, contributors, and advertisers, it
gets more difficult.)
Rusher was a huge Goldwater fan in the early 1960s, a major force
pushing him into his 1964 presidential candidacy. Frisk reminds
us that, like any sane person would be, Goldwater was unenthusiastic about
running. He seems only to have embraced the process when it was clear
he wouldn't win.
But the Goldwater campaign was successful at beating the liberal
Republicans, and it hatched the political career of conservatism's
most shining success, Ronald Reagan. Rusher was an active participant
there too. He never liked Nixon much, and wanted Reagan to be the
nominee in 1968.
Outside of politics, well… there wasn't much there to Rusher.
Never married, a few close friends. Obviously his choice, but somewhat
I can't recommend this book to anyone who isn't really interested
in the history of the US conservative political movement. At times it
seems that there's no memo so inconsequential, no squabble so trivial,
that Frisk doesn't describe it. Still, it's readable, and will act
as a lasting memory to someone who undoubtedly had a major effect
on his times.