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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Reagan

Then President Reagan emerges, of course over the seventies, but his candidacy becomes most serious at the end of the decade. What did he bring to this effort as a political leader?

I think of Nixon as a sad detour. Reagan was elected Governor of California in 1966. He was kind of sensitive about, therefore, running for president in '68. He wasn't sure people would feel he had been blooded enough. But I wanted him to run, and eventually, he did try hard in '68 and almost defeated Nixon for the nomination then. And then he tried again in '76 and, as we know, was very narrowly defeated by Ford for the nomination, who then proceeded to lose the election. So Reagan was delayed, but Reagan was the man who took a movement that had everything else (by that time even money, which was the last thing to arrive), and gave it that keystone of the arch, a national spokesman, a man perfectly capable of communicating superbly with the American people, who believed deeply in the movement. I had believed for some time that he was truly a "movement" conservative; I came to know him and I know that he was. He really cared for the movement. He had been a subscriber to National Review since 1960, in fact, and a very faithful one. So, one has to say that the movement obviously would have amounted to something in any case, but the Lord just provided Ronald Reagan.

Were the media skills that he had developed as a movie star in Hollywood a key element?

Very much. Bill Buckley is a wonderful speaker, and fascinates people, but he has this rather arch English style about him.

Eastern establishment.

Yes. Reagan had the common touch. And Reagan comes across quintessentially. He has a perfect way of putting things. He has a great ear for the right way to put a thing. His speech writers have told me that he would often change things that they wrote down, invariably for the better in that regard, to make them simpler, to make them more intelligible, more colorful. And it doesn't hurt to be a man who never treads on his own lines the way George Bush does. Bush is often halfway into the next sentence before the applause starts from the last sentence, you know. And then he's in a terrible tangle. Reagan knows just where to stop and how long to wait and then, to tell the next little wisecrack and let the penny drop at exactly the right moment. Yes, these are skills that you get as an actor, no question about it.

Do you think that Reagan, once he came in, was more pragmatic than you would have expected? Was he ever a disappointment in the early years? And if he was, was he responsible or were the people around him?

He wasn't a disappointment to me. You must distinguish here. I know plenty of conservatives who were deeply disappointed in him, I don't think most by a long shot, but I know individual conservatives for whom Reagan was just no good at all. I didn't feel that way. I felt that I understood the difference between a theoretical position I could occupy, or saying something on this program, and running for and becoming and serving as President of the United States. It's a tremendously different thing. If he made a slip of the tongue, some ministry could fall in Asia or something like that. He just had to be terribly careful. I think it turned out to be a tougher job even than he had realized, but he certainly tried at it to the very last. I think he accomplished a great deal, more than I can think of any other president, assuming he had an agenda, in achieving his agenda. As I said, I think he was a true believer. I think he did it because, as Peggy Noonan says in her book, he really believed in it.

What do you think was his greatest achievement?

Well, you have to choose among several. Cutting the income tax rate was terribly important. We see, even today, that the Democrats are strategically crippled by their inability or unwillingness to raise those income tax rates. If you haven't got the poker chips, you can't play the game, you see. So in a sense, that was a tremendously important achievement. Then again, as we see now, I think unquestionably, his buildup of the American defenses, and the threat of SDI, which left the Russians realizing that if it was carried out, their huge missiles would be worthless and they would have to spend more than they had spent on them to get an SDI of their own, which about broke their hearts. And thirdly, you could say, and I think there's something to be said for it, that almost his biggest achievement was a kind of a moral achievement. He made America, after Vietnam and after Watergate and after Carter's talk about malaise, feel a little bit proud of itself again. And that's a lot to do for a country.

Let's go through these points. I want to look at the first point. What do you say to a liberal or an opponent of conservatism who says, "Yes, but let's look at those deficits." He paid a very heavy price that we, in part, will have to pay for but most especially, our grandchildren and our great grandchildren.

Well, I'll tell you about our grandchildren and our great grandchildren. I'm delighted to have the liberals as worried as they are these days about their great-grandchildren paying the price of this deficit. Do remember that what we pay is not deficit, the principal; we pay the interest. That's the main thing, and the interest is a very big item, the second largest in the budget now. I'm not going to defend it, nor is Reagan, whom I talked to and whose views I know. But you must remember that every president is confronted with options, and it's a tradeoff. He either was going to rebuild the defenses of the United States, or he was going to have a low deficit and a balanced budget. He either was going to cut taxes and let the economy get on the roll it's been on ever since, or he was going to [avoid] that deficit. He opted for the deficit. When one talks about its long-term deleterious aspects, the one that hurts most is the servicing of the debt, the interest on the debt. But, if you look at the debt, or even the servicing of it, as a percentage of gross national product, you will find this country has kept on growing, and that the deficit, certainly the debt, the actual annual deficits, are diminishing as a percentage of gross national product, as well as absolutely under the Gramm-Rudman guidelines. So frankly, it's a little comical to me. I've been around long enough to remember the Democrats back when they could have cared less about deficits. I'm delighted to have them worry about them, but I think they're worried mostly because they've got so little else to worry about.

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