Arriving at National Review in 1957, William A. Rusher discovered a fledgling magazine that was losing $100,000 a year. The founder and editor William F. Buckley Jr. had previously fulfilled the duties of publisher himself, but eventually found that he could no longer handle two jobs and hand-selected Rusher to come in and take care of the administrative side of things which, by all accounts, he did admirably. Not content to restrict his efforts to direct-mail fundraising appeals, the new publisher felt the magazine needed a more clearly defined role in conservative America. David B. Frisk’s If Not Us, Who? gives an exhaustive—and, at times, exhausting—account of Rusher’s work as publisher, as well as his broader role in the nascent conservative movement. He wished to transform National Review from a publication that tended to “remain aloof from political struggle” into a leader with a powerful political agenda. Though he rarely wrote pieces for the magazine itself, the new publisher was invited to sit in on every editorial meeting, often butting heads with those editors who favored a more hands-off approach:
While [James] Burnham advised a gradual attempt to persuade [the] elite away from liberalism, Rusher urged that NR take a leading role in forming a doctrinally sound movement of political activists—as distinct from the conservative intellectual movement, to which it was already central. Almost by definition, a political movement would consist mainly of people who wanted to get something done.
He did not always see eye-to-eye with some of the editors, and certainly did not always get his way. Still, Rusher’s positive influence could be seen clearly on the business end. In 1957, shortly after he came on board, National Review had 17,000 paid subscribers. By 1960 that number had doubled, and in 1964 subscriptions reached 90,000.
Undoubtedly, this detailed biography’s greatest virtue is its behind-the-scenes account of the conservative movement in the mid-twentieth century and Rusher’s indispensable contributions to it. Instrumental in the formation of the “Draft Goldwater” movement that led to the senator’s victory in the 1964 Republican presidential primary, he later became a friend and supporter of Ronald Reagan. Frisk treats his reader to cinematic depictions of backroom meetings and smoke-filled hotel suites, and brings out the colorful personalities of the supporting cast.
Not so colorful is the portrayal of Rusher’s own personality. We are often reminded that the publisher was charming, witty, and quirky, yet Frisk provides little evidence for this characterization other than a few general statements from friends and acquaintances. A sentence from the first chapter sums up much of what is later revealed about Rusher the man: “With few close friends, Bill kept tropical fish, dabbled in magic, and read the newspaper quite a bit.” Most of the interesting personal details come from the section on his time at Princeton, where we learn there was an informal club of Rusher’s former enemies whose careers in the debate society he had ruined.
Unfortunately, Frisk’s analysis is frustratingly incomplete when it comes to any issue in Rusher’s political life that might be at all touchy. He was passionately devoted to the vital cause of Anti-Communism, and was, Frisk tells us repeatedly, to some extent an apologist for Joseph McCarthy, though to what extent is very difficult to determine based on Frisk’s approach to the subject: We are told that Rusher was especially disgusted by the Senate Republicans who joined Democrats in attacking McCarthy, and vowed “not to rest until every one of them had departed from the Senate.” The book then trundles on without thorough consideration of the issue, as if to say “move along, nothing to see here.”
As a political diary, If Not Us, Who? is thoroughly detailed in its depiction of events, if not always revelatory in its analysis. Most importantly, it calls attention to an underappreciated example of that rarest of birds, the conservative activist: someone who was fed up with the mentality that, given enough time, the American people would come into the light, and sought actively to change the landscape of American politics.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 3, on page 74
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