William A. Rusher, a leading theorist and organizer of the modern conservative movement who helped William F. Buckley Jr. build the National Review into one of the American right's most influential journals, died Saturday at a retirement home in San Francisco. He was 87.
Rusher, who was also a syndicated columnist and author, died of causes related to old age, said Brian T. Kennedy, president of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank where Rusher had been a research fellow since 1989.
A Wall Street lawyer who investigated communist threats for a U.S. Senate subcommittee in the McCarthy era, Rusher was regarded as a godfather of the right. "He was there at the creation of the conservative movement," Kennedy said. "He was a voice of steady ... principled conservatism."
Rusher assumed the role of National Review publisher in 1957, two years after Buckley launched it. Over the next three decades he brought discipline to its operations and helped turn it into a seminal voice of the right with a circulation of 100,000, several times greater than it was when he began. "Bill Rusher is every bit as vital to National Review as I am," Buckley wrote in the 20th anniversary issue.
Rusher lacked Buckley's flamboyance and star power but emerged as an intellectual force in his own right. His column, "The Conservative Advocate," debuted in the National Review in the early 1970s and became a must-read for like-minded politicos, outlining positions on such contentious issues as apartheid and economic policy.
He was a staunch critic of the media, which he assailed for liberal bias in a 1988 book, "The Coming Battle for the Media." He also wrote "The Making of the New Majority Party" (1975) and "The Rise of the Right" (1984). He was a popular lecturer and appeared on television debate shows.
An activist as well as ideologue, he demonstrated his organizing skills as a leader of the movement to draft U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona to be the Republican presidential candidate in 1964.
Goldwater's candidacy failed, as did Rusher's later drive to unite disparate wings of the movement behind a new third party. But he rejoiced in the 1980 election of President Reagan, whose victory cemented conservatives' place in the American political mainstream.
Rusher was born July 19, 1923, in Chicago and grew up in New York, where he attended public schools. He graduated from Princeton in 1943 and served in the Army Air Forces at its administrative center in India. After the war, he earned a law degree from Harvard and became a corporate lawyer.
In college he was a progressive Republican who supported Wendell Willkie, the GOP liberal who lost the 1940 presidential race to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Rusher's thinking grew more conservative in law school, when he became interested in the causes of domestic communism. In 1956 he accepted a position as associate counsel to the internal security subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee under Sen. Pat McCarran, a Democrat from Nevada. His work for the subcommittee attracted the attention of Buckley, who invited Rusher to take over as the National Review's publisher.
He helped develop a network of young conservatives as a founder of Young Americans for Freedom, launched in 1960 during a meeting at Buckley's Connecticut estate. A few years later, he and two of his close associates from the group, F. Clifton White and Rep. John Ashbrook (R-Ohio), organized the National Draft Goldwater Committee and galvanized support to put the Arizona senator on the ballot as the Republican nominee.
Rusher was unapologetically conservative not only in politics but in his personal style. He nearly always wore a suit and tie and was so ruffled by National Review pranksters who rearranged his meticulously ordered office that he left for his club until it could be restored to its usual form.
He was also famous for his charts illustrating the slightest change in the magazine's fortunes. As Buckley quipped in a 1969 speech about his fastidious colleague, "We have a graph that will tell you at a glance whether Lauren Bacall is more or less conservative than Humphrey Bogart."
David Frisk, whose biography of Rusher will be published this year, said the conservative leader was an optimist who took setbacks to the movement in stride. He was resigned to the election of President Obama in 2008 and unsurprised by the Republican gains last year because, Frisk said, "he knew politics runs in cycles. You're never up forever or down forever. He believed conservatism would come back."
Rusher never married and leaves no immediate survivors.