William Rusher Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Conservative Movement: Conversation with William A. Rusher, former publisher of the National Review; 4/25/90 by Harry Kreisler

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Conservative Ideas Take Hold

In the introduction to one of your books you emphasize that philosophically you feel that ideas have to come first.

Well, they did in this case, no question about it. "In the beginning was the word." Oh, there were some conservative senators: Taft had died in 1953, but Stiyes Bridges was still around, and William Knowland was Republican Minority Leader. But there was nothing you could build on seriously. And because the conservative movement began to look like something you could refer to, and apply the principles of to the determination of issues, it is clear to me that the period from 1955, when National Review was launched, until 1960 was the period of creating the intellectual movement. But by 1960, it had done everything it could do, simply as an intellectual movement. Something had to bring it into politics.

Most of the people who were in it had no gift for politics. They were professors or ex-communists of one sort and another, with little marginal jobs. Where were the politicians? Well, the Lord provides. At that point a whole group of bright young men started the Conservative Party in New York. Another group launched what turned into the "Draft Goldwater" movement. Certain politicians like Goldwater, and indeed, Knowland and Jenner, and others, were willing to identify with us, encourage us, and speak for us to some extent. And, as we know, Goldwater eventually got the Republican presidential nomination and, as I said in the book, far from being the great tragedy that you might think, '64 was an almost indispensably seminal year. That was the year we got control of the Republican Party. It was the year that we established the mailing lists; they had to be created and filed with various clerks of Congress, and so on. And Goldwater got more small contributions than any presidential candidate up to that time had ever received.

So here we were suddenly, with mailing lists that could be computerized and used in senatorial campaigns in the future, and for money-raising of all sorts. And then last, but far from least, a certain actor, slightly over the hill, made a speech for Goldwater and the next thing you know, he was Governor of California by a million votes.

And thus the movement began. What were the social dynamics in the country that entered into this embracing of the movement?

A very good question, and I have a very clear answer to it. The conservative movement, as of 1960, certainly was in a position to make a case to the country for less government, and for a solid resistance to the communists, and, perhaps, for an honoring of tradition. But that would not, in itself, have necessarily changed a lot. What happened at that time was that the whole cultural counter-revolution came along, the sexual revolution, the uprise in drugs, the flood of pornography, the increase in the Vietnam War (eventually, toward the end of the decade particularly). So the New Left was on the scene. Now the New Left tends to think of the 1960s as their decade, and perhaps it was. But I also happen to think that the conservatives got 100,000 votes per riot straight through the 1960s. And you can see the transformation. A whole group of blue-collar, formerly Democratic or independent voters swung away from their Democratic affiliation. They stopped worrying so much about economics and began worrying more about what was happening to their county, what was happening to family values. And they're still worried about that. They became a new part of this coalition and, I might add, a big voting chunk of this coalition.

At about that same time, the neo-conservatives, a small but very influential group of New York intellectual liberals, moved over -- again, in resistance to the New Left. In the late 1970s, the religious right signed aboard, again, with a large number of new voters. So the movement got larger numerically. But, to answer your question, the social dynamic was when the swing vote (I would put it at 20 percent of the American electorate) shifted in about 1965 or '66 or '67, from the Democrats, either to an independent candidacy, like Wallace, or to the Republican coalition.

If Nixon had not fallen as a result of Watergate, do you think he would have been able to co-opt the sting of the movement, or would you consider him to have been a true conservative?

No, I never considered him to be a true conservative. And he was very late in understanding the depth or the importance of the conservative movement. But he does say in his memoirs, written in 1976, that he intended in his second term to turn the Republican Party into the party of "the new majority." He now, retrospectively, begins seeing how important it was, and I don't know how truly, identifies himself as having had that intention. As we know, he never got the chance to act on it, if he had it, because he got booted by Watergate instead. But, I agree with you that up until then, he had been co-opting and very successfully diminishing the impact of the conservative movement. I was furious with him. I didn't even vote for him in 1972; I didn't vote for anybody for president. It may be that he finally got the word because he says several times, "I intended to change the Republican Party along new majority lines."

What about the development, in the late seventies, of think-tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation? That is, where we were now moving to a real development of a Conservative program, with an agenda, with the particulars. Was that also a new thrust in this period?

Yes it was. The sequence was, first "the word" -- '55 to '60 -- then the turn to politics, from '60 roughly to '70, and then the think tanks in, not just the late seventies, but even the early seventies; the Heritage Foundation began about 1973 if I'm not mistaken.

Oh, that early?

Yes. In the seventies, the conservative movement proliferated unbelievably. When I wrote my book, which was supposed to be a history of this whole thing, and got to the period of the seventies, it just got out of hand. I knew I could not do justice to all the things that were happening. I almost totally forgot about Phyllis Schlafley and had to put in a last-minute paragraph on the subject of her impact on the women's movement, which was enormous of course. All of which happened in the seventies. I would say that in retrospect, we didn't see it coming, but a lot of people were getting interested in conservatism by then and they would pick out their particular topic and concentrate on that. We had committees, and still have, on everything, every conceivable subject -- legal foundations testing things in the courts, campaign schools to train managers and candidates, journalistic schools to train young conservative journalists, separate committees on Africa, on Asia, on Latin America, on tax limitation, everybody doing his thing. And it all proliferated during the 1970s. I think it was a function of the larger number of people involved.

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