Remembering Bill Rusher

April 21, 2011 - 12:23 PM

Many years ago, at a mutual friend’s wedding, I was chatting with John Von Kannon, fundraiser extraordinaire for the Heritage Foundation. We were discussing the importance of his work since I was performing a similar (but far less successful) task for another political group. “Robert E. Lee deserves all the credit he’s gotten,” Von Kannon explained, “but without his supply wagons he’d have accomplished nothing.”

The point is salient: in the world of politics it is the generals who make the headlines, but it is the organizers, naturally overshadowed, who make it all possible.

william a. rusher

William A. Rusher (1923-2011) (Photo: The Claremont Institute)

It is commonly accepted that without the National Review magazine and Bill Buckley there would have been no Ronald Reagan. Let the history books be amended to state that without the functional organization of its publisher,  National Review would never had survived.

I knew William A. Rusher – “Bill” to his friends, “WAR” in his National Review memoranda – pretty much my entire life. I have memories of him visiting at my parents’ home in Chevy Chase, Maryland during the Goldwater years. When I entered the public policy arena in 1979 he was a mainstay: publisher of the movement’s flagship magazine; television debater; columnist; author; mentor.

In 1985 I launched the Media Research Center as a project of the National Conservative Foundation and Bill took an immediate interest in our work, regularly projecting our studies to millions through his syndicated column. In 1986 he wrote The Coming Battle for the National Media. That year I had also decided to incorporate the MRC as an independent entity. I turned to Bill Rusher and invited him to join the Media Research Center board of directors, and he kindly agreed.

In 1987 our doors opened for business. Within about five years, however, there was a leadership crisis. I called myself to my office, sat myself down, and explained that while I had performed admirably as Chairman of the MRC, for practical purposes I shouldn’t hold that mantle. Besides, in our midst there was someone far more qualified. I told myself I was sorry but I needed me to tender my resignation. I agreed. With the post now vacant, I turned and offered it to the man who deserved the title. Bill Rusher was now Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Media Research Center and all was good with the world.

Bill would serve in that capacity until advancing age and infirmities made travel finally impossible and he tendered his resignation in 2009. Let the record state that while the founder and president of the organization receives the public kudos, it was Bill Rusher whose steady hand directed and guided the MRC from the beginning.

Many have commented on Bill’s famous sense of elegance, his wit and charm, his attention to detail, and his organizational talents. Add to it his debater’s lust for blood and his quirky sense of humor and you had a force of nature.

A few years ago I was introducing Bill at a dinner, attempting to demonstrate how relatively easy it was to fight the good fight in modern times compared to the early years of the conservative movement when it had virtually no assets. I recalled a passage from another one of Bill’s books, The Rise of the Right. It was about a dinner held in 1948, in New York, with just a handful of people, and this constituted the entirety of the conservative movement. I brought Bill to the stage with loud applause recognizing him as the leader of that small band of revolutionaries.

Bill just couldn’t resist. Speaking through gritted teeth he began. “It was not 1948, it was 1961.” And then: “It was not New York, it was Chicago.” And then: “It was not a handful, there were 22 of us.” And then: “It was not organizing the conservative movement, we were organizing the Goldwater campaign.” And then the final rapier’s thrust, now looking directly at me with a beaming smile as he delivered the coup de grace, “Brent, my boy, you got nothing right!”

Which is not to say I couldn’t get Bill. Oh, how I got him once.

While it’s true that Bill had a sense of humor, it’s also true there was some humor he could live without. Bill never liked the MRC’s  annual April Fool’s joke, whereby we took our bi-weekly newsletter Notable Quotables and for the April 1 edition produced the most outrageous and utterly fictitious quotes possible, attributing them to selected liberal journalists, and then watching to see who fell for the gag. Year after year Bill would express his displeasure but he couldn’t convince me to stop; it was too much fun.

Until that April 1 morning in 1994 when I received the call at home from the assistant editorial page editor at the Washington Times. He wanted to confirm that we had just released our April Fool’s edition, and cited a quote. Yes, I confirmed, and why was he asking? Because one of his columnists had fallen for the gag, the fellow explained, and he’d committed an entire column to savaging the liberal media using these quotes as evidence. Oh dear, said I, and who might that columnist be? William Rusher.

I was tasked with the mission to deliver Bill the bad news. I waited until 9:00 am California time and placed the call. Bill was beyond unhappy. He was apoplectic. His arguments about the (lack of) professionalism of this exercise were now firmly confirmed. He hung up right after telling me – “thanks so much, Brent!” -- he needed to contact his syndication immediately to exercise damage control. I giggled as I hand-wrote him a note telling Bill I was going to hide under a rock and would re-emerge when his anger had passed. Which of course it did, eventually.

I never stopped our annual April Fool’s gag and until the very end Bill expressed his disapproval. But always the happy warrior, he also giggled along with me recounting how he fell for it.

My wife was puzzled when she saw my expression the other night when I was delivered the news of his death. “You’re not sad?” she asked. No I wasn’t, and no I’m not. Bill was 87, fighting infirmities, and prepared for his Maker. He’s now with Him, of that I’m sure, organizing the troops in Paradise.

I’m not sad, but I do miss him, and thank him for a lifetime of memories, of mentorship and of friendship. Bill Rusher, RIP.