There are many reasons to read David Frisk’s recent book If Not Us, Who? One, of course, is the subject of the book, the late National Review (NR) publisher William Rusher, the “great unsung hero of the conservative movement,” as Mark Levin aptly notes in a blurb on the cover.
But the book is also a fascinating look at the conservative movement, its rise and history, and how a major journal helped shape it by “fusing” together social conservatives and free market libertarians. Drawing on extensive research, including interviews with Rusher, William F. Buckley, M. Stanton Evans, and others going back to 2003, Frisk recreates the political dramas, the battles of ideas, the personality conflicts, and the reshaping of the political parties in an engaging narrative style. He delves into seminal events, like the “Draft Goldwater” campaign of 1964, William F. Buckley’s campaign for New York mayor, the debate about a third party, and the steps and missteps towards Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Against these he gives us a picture of an intelligent, principled, and charmingly quirky man, William Rusher, who provided a needed counterweight to the high-flying William F. Buckley, as he served as publisher from 1957 until 1988.
As Frisk recounts Rusher’s role in two of the major developments of the period, he also clears up misconceptions. These involve the conservative youth movement and the “southern strategy” in elections, the former usually ignored and the latter miscast as evidence of racism.
The textbooks and the mainstream media would have us believe that the youth movement was a uniform massive uprising of Leftist youth against racism and an imperialistic war. The common wisdom goes that even those not affiliated with the SDS were sympathetic. But the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), whom Rusher mentored (among other young conservatives), pushed back against the counterculture; inspired by Barry Goldwater, these college students grew up to be key political players in later elections, like Reagan’s.
We learn that at the 1969 YAF convention in St. Louis “fusionist and mainstream traditionalist conservatives” defeated the minority of doctrinaire libertarians, many of whom advocated an alliance with the New Left, including draft resistance and marijuana legalization. Indeed, there are lessons for today here.
Frisk briefly delves into what has become another historical misrepresentation: the “southern strategy,” which “is typically alleged to have been racist or racially exploitative.” Admitting that segregationist sympathies led some Southerners to vote for Goldwater, Frisk also points out, “The ubiquitous charge tends to blame strategists and candidates for the racist and segregationist intentions of some voters.”
Political pundits, before they rush off to make charges of racism, should note Rusher’s long article in the February 12, 1963, issue of National Review, which became “one of his claims to fame.” Rusher recognized the changing demographics of the South upon which the “southern strategy” was largely based: the growing population of white collar urban and suburban workers who were conservative but more accepting of integration than the old Democrats. In his article, Rusher pointed out that the Democrats, while endorsing segregation, had been “‘calmly raking in’ a near-monopoly of elective offices in the region for decades.”
Such facts need to be pointed out over and over, especially as we face a Soviet-style campaign of racial division under the Obama administration. Frisk’s understated but lively narrative, amply supported with evidence, contributes to the growing scholarship that exposes the about-faces on civil rights by Democrats. Here in Dixie, our local Atlanta columnist Dick Yarbrough, in a June 26 column recounting his visit to former Governor Carl Sanders, recalled how Sanders had been attacked by his opponent Jimmy Carter for having attended the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. Sanders, of course, lost his second bid for governorship.
Another parallel to the challenges within the conservative movement today is the conflict between the elites and the grassroots, with charges of extremism and paranoia often being hurled at the latter. Certainly there are excesses and odd personalities within any populist movement. The challenge to National Review in the 1960s was the John Birch Society (JBS). National Review’s statement on JBS is still used as a defense against attacks from the Left – or to argue for a return to Establishment Republicanism.
William Rusher’s opposition to the statement and his prediction of it gaining prestige among “professional Republicans” is recounted by Frisk. A pragmatist, who was more sympathetic to the lower and middle classes than Buckley, Rusher wanted to make a distinction between the leadership and membership, and lobbied against the language of the fourteen-page special section as it was being prepared in late 1965. Rusher called Buckley’s contribution, “‘a sort of running gun-battle’ with angry readers; he objected to Buckley’s derogatory terms like “‘mania,’ zanier findings,’ and ‘advanced Birchitis,’” as well as to James Burnham’s reference to “Birchites.” Frisk points out, “[Rusher] thought it was obnoxious to call its president ‘General Welch’ and excessively smug to write ‘the grownups among us.’” Displaying his political skill, Rusher said, “‘Let us not give Welch a golden opportunity to say that we are pro-New York and pro-Eastern Establishment in this well-understood sense.’”
Warning of the possible effect on the relationship between NR and the conservative movement, Rusher told colleagues that such language would not persuade, but instead alienate. His long memo to Buckley, however, was ignored.
Rusher continued to object to the magazine’s increasing tone of being “‘irresolute, Hamlet-like and old-maidish about various topics,’” as he put it. He complained of being “‘unable to clear our throat and say anything very forceful’” about a visit to Hanoi by left-wing professor Staughton Lynd and “‘his communist buddy’” Herbert Aptheker, for example.
Certainly, Rusher, in spite of his penchant for fine living and gourmet restaurants, would have gotten applause at any tea party for this statement in 1978 about China and the Panama canal: “‘I am damned if I see much point in letting such important matters as American foreign policy be run by a handful of multinational corporations, their lawyers, and their government friends.’”
In reading If Not Us, Who? today’s conservative may feel a sense of déjà vu. We face similar challenges from the “professional Republicans”: irresoluteness, weakness, and disdain for the grassroots. A voice like Rusher’s is much needed today. Fortunately, we have David Frisk’s biography.
Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, "Resisting the Re-Education of America," arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.