If Not Us, Who?
William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement
By David B. Frisk
ISI Books Copyright © 2012 David B. Frisk
All rights reserved.
Enter This War Now
The Great Neck High School yearbook of 1940 puckishly listed a quality each senior would leave to someone else. For William Rusher the entry was a silly prediction: "leaves for the Senate." At sixteen he wanted to be a political operative or a highbrow columnist. But to most classmates, such aspirations and the Senate might have meant the same thing. A year and a half before, Bill had won a newspaper essay contest on the Constitution. "After all," he told the New York Journal and American for its brief write-up, "we students should be Constitution-conscious. We are going to grow up and be the people who run the nation."
The war came to Western Europe during his last weeks of high school as Nazi Germany invaded several countries with little resistance. In Philadelphia the Republican National Convention was coming up. Bill glued his ears to the radio and eventually heard the news he was hoping for. After a dramatic six ballots, Wendell Willkie clinched the presidential nomination. For the young listener it was early proof that an insurgent campaign could win. With the world in crisis, a well-organized groundswell had brought an unlikely newcomer into the game.
Most delegates still preferred Senator Robert Taft of Ohio or the youthful district attorney of New York, Thomas Dewey—not Willkie, a utility executive who had recently left the Democratic Party and was making his first run for office. But the Republicans were meeting just after France had surrendered to Germany, and England might be next. The specter of Hitler haunted the convention as its "uninvited guest." The Republican Party, Bill had written a month earlier, was "left high and dry on the stationary promontory of its principles, while the world rushed by below it, toward a new conception of international affairs."
Willkie, the only candidate urging immediate aid for Britain, looked like the man of the hour to the fledgling pundit and to enough of the delegates. The greater man of the hour was the defiant new prime minister, Winston Churchill, whose speeches Bill heard when they were broadcast across the Atlantic. "Well, if you have to have a hero," his father said, "I guess you've picked a good one." On a visit to the nearby World's Fair that summer, the young admirer of Churchill and Willkie recorded as a keepsake his own prointervention speech: "Consequently I think we should enter this war now, with all our heart and with all our soul." In September, Rusher entered Princeton University and the Reserve Officer Training Corps. It was the beginning of an ambiguous relationship with the "eastern establishment," one that would shape his political career and thereby influence the conservative movement.
Parents and Upbringing
Although Bill spent most of his childhood in the New York area, the family had lived in Chicago until 1930. As a boy in the East, he would explain later in an autobiographical sketch, he became "self-consciously a midwesterner-in-exile—swelling with pride when we studied Chicago in geography class, rooting for the Cubs though I was largely uninterested in baseball."
His parents were "a fairly typical midwestern couple, both from Methodist backgrounds," successful enough when Evan Rusher had his better jobs, but not wealthy. The elder Rusher was a solid but not a passionate Republican, conservative but not in his son's recollection "right wing." He worried about the country's direction under President Franklin Roosevelt, generally agreed with the anti-New Deal radio commentary, and followed the news closely without being politically active. A sales manager and executive who put great energy into his work, Evan thought little of politics as a career. He seemed not to welcome Bill's inclination toward it. "His first reaction was rather dismissive," Rusher recalls. When they visited Washington once, about 1937 and probably at Bill's urging, they spent a lot of time in the hotel's air-conditioned restaurant.
Evan Rusher came from tiny Hymera, Indiana, near Terre Haute. The son of a socialist coal-mine foreman, he had only a high-school education. He volunteered for the Army shortly after American entry into World War I. Serving in the field artillery, he trained in France and was promoted to second lieutenant. He never saw combat but was evaluated as "a hard and most willing worker ... very satisfactory." After discharge, Evan was hired as a traveling salesman by the Chicago-based Standard Advertising Company. He would spend a decade with the firm, which sold advertising and promotional services to retail stores and newspapers around the country. On his route he met Verna Rae Self, an elementary-school teacher in Independence, Kansas, whose father kept a store. Evan wrote her daily for a year and they married in December 1920. After a year and a half on the road, both in their midtwenties, they settled in Chicago.
William Allen Rusher, born there on July 19, 1923, was their only child. It was a difficult birth at which multiple doctors had to assist. Verna, who got a dangerous abdominal infection for a few weeks, told her son many years later: "We had the best of care or we wouldn't be here." The young family lived in an apartment near the University of Chicago, in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Later they would move often, Bill attending different schools around New York. They were able to hire a live-in maid for some years but usually occupied a comfortable apartment or a rented house, not their own home. There were no expensive vacations and no luxuries to speak of. But when the family listened to Hawaii Calls, a musical program broadcast from a hotel at Waikiki Beach to the accompaniment of the Pacific waves, Bill fell under its spell.
The maid was a middle-aged black woman named Sarah, of whom he saw "a good deal more ... that I did of my parents." Evan and Verna considered her practically one of the family and would innocently ask her, perhaps with some "unconscious patronization" as Rusher reflected later, to the living room so everyone could listen to Amos 'n' Andy. Large-figured in a black dress and white apron with matching cap, she chuckled softly at the program's humor. Sarah was uneducated and "highly skeptical. When I ran to her with the news, gleaned from a children's encyclopedia, that the sun was 93 million miles away, she refused to believe it, and told me, 'The man just put that in the book to make money.'" At the same time, he appreciated Sarah's excellent memory for short poems and the variety of "arcane lore" she shared with him. "I loved her dearly."
Bill's parents did not attend church but sent him to a Sunday school when they lived long enough in one place. "Methodist or Presbyterian," Rusher recalls. "Anything reasonably moderate would do." Verna, a stay-at-home mother, was a graduate of a teacher's college and thus had more formal education than her husband. Deeply devoted to her boy, she had one other strong interest: the piano-accordion, then a popular instrument, at which she became as proficient as she could. "I think she would have liked, had she been in a position, to have had a career in that," Rusher says. "She was very good at it." But her husband jealously forbade her to perform outside their home. For years, Verna played the "splendid Wurlitzer" in her bedroom every afternoon. Evan was "an authoritative, distinguished type." In the sales world, he had to convince people he knew what he was talking about. One of his closest associates later claimed he could sell glasses to a blind man. The young Rusher experienced something similar in a talk about his future:
Once, probably in my early teens—when I hadn't decided what I wanted to do as a career, or where I wanted to go to college—my father put up the idea that ... science or technology ... was the way to go, and MIT was the school to go to. And he had me absolutely convinced at the end of the day, on both scores. Looking back on it, I think he was doing nothing but just exercising his salesmanship that day. I don't think there was the slightest expectation that I would take his advice. But he felt like selling somebody on something, and he did it very fast.
Evan Rusher was also tenacious, self-confident, and naturally analytical. By about 1927, he had become president of the company that hired him in 1919. He then struck out on his own. Not long before the Depression, Rusher developed a strategy for independent stores. The Standard Plan, as he called it, enabled them to compete better with the already-threatening chains by purchasing as a group, consulting with an expert staff, and delegating functions like cost control and sales planning to a company in New York. Rusher headed the firm, Standard Store Service, which in 1931 occupied three floors of a Broadway building and employed one hundred people. It is unclear what happened to the company. But Evan would recall that he "spent ten years following sound rules for building a strong financial foundation" after the war, "only to have it all swept away in the crash of 1929-30." In the next several years "I was able to keep my earnings at their normal level but, through reaction, I largely threw them away in an exaggerated form of living."
Hit by the Depression, he took pride in earlier successes. A well-designed flier he prepared when seeking better work in 1933 said he had traveled some five hundred thousand miles as a salesman in the past thirteen years and had never missed a quota. Soon he was the sales manager for a hosiery company, and apparently a forceful one. In its newsletter, Evan exhorted the staff in early 1934:
Thousands of dollars worth of business is getting away in almost all of your territories, that YOU COULD GET if you planned your work right and then went after it ... You have proven since January 1st, that you were only scratching the surface up to that time and I say to you, that you can have and this Company must have far more business ... Some of this may sound like strong language, but it's written for the good of all of us ... If you could see the composite, cross-section picture that I see, you would know d—well that I am right and would DO MORE ABOUT IT.
At National Review, his son would sometimes write comparably urgent memos, although more sophisticated ones, about politics.
The elder Rusher eventually got an untitled position with the New York Herald Tribune. The family moved to an apartment in Great Neck, near Queens, because its high school had an excellent academic reputation. The Trib initially paid $100 a week, roughly half of what Evan had earned in the mid-1920s. But he soon doubled his starting pay and would spend three years there as head of its retail merchandising service, promoting the paper to potential advertisers. He was later hired as president of National Merchandise News, which served papers around the country. Although his career was promising again, it didn't last. Chest pains, which Evan had developed by 1937, became bad enough that a doctor told him in 1941 to quit work indefinitely. After a year and a half of rest, divorced and now living in Oklahoma, he took a less-demanding job at a large retail store.
In his college yearbook, Bill would describe his father as "semi-retired." But Evan wanted to pass along what he had learned. In 1947, he published four pamphlets for salesmen that drew heavily on his experience. His message was tough but optimistic. Over the years he had "learned a highly significant and basic fact ... that the average person does not try very hard to succeed in his or her job." To try hard, a salesman must think seriously about his humble occupation and about people. "Most of your prospective customers will have in mind an unsatisfied desire, or an unspoken wish, which can be fulfilled through the purchase of one or more items of merchandise. However ... they will vary widely as to type and you will use different tactics in serving them."
Despite Evan's good sense of humor, he and Verna were unhappy together. Their son remembers much arguing, "always a Mexican standoff" that neither parent won, and believes Evan was probably a borderline alcoholic. The marital problems, Rusher suspects, were worsened by his father's frequent absences on the road and the likelihood he was "meeting young ladies along the way—as salesmen do from time to time," perhaps the exaggerated living he regretted later. The couple considered going their separate ways as early as 1931, when Bill turned eight. By the time they brought him to Princeton in 1940, they were in the process of divorce. "He saw how his parents did not get along," according to Judy Fernald, a close friend since the early 1950s, "and I think it scarred him for marriage."
There was probably also an ironic value, as it turned out, in Bill's troubled family life. An admiring talk-show host once asked how he became such a good debater. He thought it had much to do with growing up in that kind of home, Rusher told Barry Farber. Hearing as a child such "constant arguing and taking advantage of the other person's weakness, coming down hard on targets of opportunity," he learned a lot about how to debate. Although his parents treated him kindly, their arguments were "severe and painful to have to watch," Rusher recalled in an interview in the late 1990s. He also learned to appreciate "how peaceful an otherwise empty apartment could be"—which might, he added, explain why he remained a lifelong bachelor.
With few close friends, Bill kept tropical fish, dabbled in magic, and read the newspaper quite a bit. He took piano lessons for a time with "lamentably brief" interest, but the pet fish would be a lasting hobby. At a piano recital when he was eleven, his teacher had given prizes to everyone. Bill received a goldfish in a bowl and would keep three tanks while in high school. As a teen he also had a little dog, a Scotty, whose death would be cause for genuine grief. Bill had "found real love" in the dog, Fernald recalls. "He could talk about him in such tender terms."
The Rushers took the Herald Tribune—Evan's employer, but more importantly a leading voice of the Republican establishment, which was driven from power by the election and success of President Roosevelt but still had impressive media resources. The Trib was not only a Republican presence in the New York of the 1930s but also a genteel one that provided outstanding cultural coverage. No other American paper matched its "stringency of critical standards, quality of critical writing, or range of critical assessment." Appropriately for a Herald Tribune family, Verna would introduce Bill to a lifelong enjoyment of the opera by taking him on New Year's Day 1940 to a matinee performance of Rigoletto at the Old Met starring Lily Pons, Lawrence Tibbett, and Jussi Björling. "I was knocked out by it," Rusher remembers. "I just loved it. And I got the Red Seal Victor recordings and branched out, and got to know a little bit more about Italian opera, and have loved it ever since."
By 1936, when Bill began paying close attention to politics, the Herald Tribune had toned down the Republican bias in its news pages. But stories about GOP presidential candidate Alf Landon tended to get better placement than ones about Roosevelt, and the paper ran a column by one of Landon's organizers. With gentle yet "unmistakably" barbed ridicule, notes Richard Kluger in his history of the Trib, its Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist "continually chided the Roosevelt administration for alleged shackling of big business, subservience to organized labor, handouts to the idle and undeserving, and usurpation of libertarian values." The paper also featured the column of the classic pundit-intellectual Walter Lippmann. Bill followed it devoutly and thought he might try to become another Lippmann if he didn't go into politics. More broadly, he accepted the Trib's editorial line: mild conservatism on domestic issues plus an internationalism at odds with midwestern Republican isolationism. He developed a sense that the world was in deep trouble, along with a desire to express himself publicly. By 1938, he was writing "Americanism editorials" for the school paper.
Rusher's first real political memory is the 1936 election. His father believed the badly mistaken Literary Digest poll, betting a hat on Landon, the Kansas governor whom the Republicans had nominated, while many of the town's residents wore Landon buttons. Roosevelt's forty-six-state triumph hit Bill hard, especially since the candidate came from his mother's hometown. The next day he could barely drag himself to school. "I guess," Rusher said more than sixty years later, "I'm still fighting the election of 1936 in some ways." (Continues...)
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