One of my favorite Bill Rusher stories is from the 1984 presidential campaign, when he and Jeane Kirkpatrick faced off against Christopher Dodd and Barney Frank on the question of Reagan vs. Mondale. Poor Senator Dodd had to contend with this impossible query from Bill Rusher: “On the invasion of Grenada, do you agree with Mr. Mondale that it was justified, or with Ms. Ferraro that it wasn’t?”
There he was—the conservative advocate in his prime. It was a thrill to watch Rusher carry the conservative standard into the fight. He was the best debater I’ve ever seen—always in full command of his brief, laying traps for the other side, thinking up devastating questions on the spot. William F. Buckley Jr. could, without changing his tone of voice, throw an opponent off his game. But when Bill Rusher stepped to the microphone, with that formal manner and level gaze, it was advocacy of a different form: It was time to settle the matter. Rusher would sharply and directly challenge his adversary—who, if not thoroughly prepared for the encounter, might well end up out of ammunition, stammering, and livid.
I had my first glimpse of Rusher as a politically interested kid in the 1970s, when he was a semi-regular on Good Morning America. I can still remember the exhilaration of watching him score point after point against a succession of luckless liberals. If any outside influences made me a conservative, they are Ronald Reagan and William A. Rusher. Reagan was my boyhood hero, the one I knew would save the country from ruin; Rusher was the one who taught me that conservative principles needed tough, forthright defenders.
So it was a joy when I got to know him in the late 1980s, after I wrote from New Haven to say I’d like to meet him sometime. Soon there came an invitation to lunch at Nicola Paone in New York, and from then on—and like so many other young conservatives over the years—I was Rusher’s friend. It was an honor to know such an accomplished fellow—Harvard Law School, service abroad in World War II, publisher of National Review for 31 years, syndicated columnist, and a regular presence on television from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Viewers who never met Rusher nonetheless had a pretty good sense of what he was like: the insistent voice and clipped way of speaking, the fastidiously combed hair, the crisp pocket square. In the public eye he was a battler and a line-drawer, utterly unafraid of confrontation. In person he could be a bit of a character, brisk and businesslike, and precise in his habits. He probably wasn’t aware that most everybody who knew him had total recall of something Rusher had once said to them—and it was impossible to tell a Rusher story without also falling into the man’s own voice. In any case, it didn’t bother him to be kidded now and then, as when Bill Buckley noted that Rusher’s laidback style caused him to arrive at the office each day anywhere between three minutes to ten and two minutes to ten.
Yet casual acquaintances were often surprised by the side of Rusher that his friends knew so well. The brusque and relentless debater was, in private, pleasant and easygoing. Over dinner he was equally content to have a long, thoughtful philosophical discussion, or to give the evening over to telling hilarious stories or reciting favorite poems. He was courtly but unpretentious, laughed easily, and didn’t even mind conceding a point now and then. He had his principles but wasn’t much for passing judgment on others; though he had sparred with so many different politicians, activists, and commentators, I never heard him say something spiteful or intolerant about another human being. As far as I could tell, Rusher (whom I always called Mr. Rusher, since I never felt comfortable calling him “Bill”) was conservative in every respect but one. Whether we met in New York, Washington, or his retirement home of San Francisco, unless I insisted otherwise he usually scheduled lunch or dinner at one of his clubs, where only he could pick up the tab. No debating there.
I don’t think he mentioned the fact in his book How to Win Arguments, but Rusher once told me that he got his earliest debate training at home. His mother and father weren’t really made for each other, and their son grew up in the midst of clashing opinions. He said, “I suppose you learn something about fighting words when you see one conversation after another go right down to a Mexican standoff.” When he went off to college, he recalled, his parents delivered him to Princeton, drove home, and soon commenced a divorce. Afterward, he said with a smile, both remarried to “very nice, quieter spouses who did exactly as they were told.” Yet for all that, he said his childhood had been a happy one; his mom and dad were always sweet and attentive toward him, and they were the only immediate family he ever had. The time he showed me around his new apartment in San Francisco, I noticed in the bedroom large framed photographs of them both.
When his mother died in her 90s, Rusher wrote that she had not been at all pleased about living so long: “‘What is the point?’ she demanded.” There was a little of that in Bill Rusher, too. In retirement he continued writing, serving on boards, and taking long journeys. He loved life. He just wasn’t obsessed with keeping it going. “When somebody says to do thus-and-so because ‘it’ll add three years to your life,’” he told me, “they never mention that those three years will be added at the end!” On the subject of age and health he would repeat a favorite aphorism: “In your thirties, nothing will happen. In your forties, nothing should happen. In your fifties, something may happen. In your sixties, something will happen.” In later years he saw need for an amendment. “In your 70s,” he laughed, “hell breaks loose.”
In fact he did all right almost until the end, which came on April 16, in the 88th year of his good life. He leaves behind many thousands of fans, hundreds of personal friends, ten or more godchildren, and decades’ worth of debate adversaries who never encountered someone so formidable or impressive. For me, this dignified man was a mentor, an encourager, and always a source of measured, wise, even fatherly advice. It was a great blessing to know William Allen Rusher for the last 24 years of his life, and I will honor his memory for the rest of mine.
John P. McConnell, former senior speechwriter to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, is a resident fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.