President Ronald Reagan inaugurated the Ashbrook Center on May 9, 1983. The following is a condensed version of his speech at Ashland College.
We are here this evening to honor a man who, though he died at a tragically young age, garnered for himself a remarkable record of public service as a State Assemblyman, a distinguished Congressman, a candidate for the United States Senate, and, for a brief time, a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. There is sadness and surprise in recounting these titles of office either held or sought by John Ashbrook; sadness, of course, because a man who made such an enormous contribution to American political life is now gone; surprise, because all of us who followed closely the career of John Ashbrook remember him for his youthful and vigorous advocacy of traditional American principles. When he entered the State Legislature, he was twenty-eight, the second youngest member at that time of that body. When he went to Congress, he was thirty-two, the second youngest member of that body. When he died a candidate for the United States Senate, he was only fifty-three.
It was never quite possible to say of John Ashbrook that he was typical, even though he was very much one of a breed of Midwestern Congressmen, those who over the course of several decades fought a long, hard, and frequently losing battle against the encroachments and intrusions of big government. As early as 1960, John Ashbrook warned against unbridled national power with the resultant loss of individual freedom and local autonomy. He warned against the state planners, the economy wreckers, the spenders and the destroyers of local government. He was a founder and chairman of distinguished conservative organizations, including the American Conservative Union. In standing up for these views, he was remarkably consistent. His lifetime voting record garnered him a ninety-seven out of a possible one hundred percent on the Conservative voting scale. Yes, John Ashbrook was one of those honored few, those officeholders in the Fifties and Sixties who warned against the current trends and fashions, who predicted that someday the massive spending schemes and higher and higher taxes of the Federal Government would stall and depress the American economy, immobilize state and local government, and endanger personal freedom.
But if John Ashbrook was a rock-solid conservative, he was also a conservative who broke the mold. He hardly fit the image of the stuffy or parochial reactionary some tried to attach to him. A graduate of Harvard, an adept and effective public speaker, the concise eloquence he brought to his views made the liberal establishment take notice; and most important, he was willing to take the kind of chances that few older and more traditional members of his party would ever have dared. He even challenged an incumbent President of his own party when he felt that President needed to be reminded of its original mandate. In John Ashbrook’s youth, his erudition and his willingness to challenge long-established political precedents, we saw a new kind of Republican, a new kind of conservative. It was in this sense that he was ahead of his time, a forerunner of many conservative officeholders to come; and the voters of Ohio, even those who didn’t agree with him on every point saw in him a man to be trusted, a leader who had clearly charted out the future and knew the direction he wanted it to go. Even those who view the world from a different political perspective can honor this man’s utter devotion to principle and his understanding of the essence of political leadership. John Ashbrook knew that the first duty of public life is to responsibly speak the truth, even if the moment’s fashion is against that truth, for it’s through such consistency and coherence, such constant attention to principle that the public trust is eventually won and a political consensus mobilized.
In many ways, John Ashbrook symbolized the beginnings of a new conservative movement in America. As he grew in prominence, so did the movement he helped to lead. In the Fifties and Sixties, it was labeled a lost cause. In the Seventies, it was thought of as another pressure group. And in the Eighties, many could argue that is was the dominant force in American political and intellectual life. We mourn John Ashbrook’s loss to this movement and to his country; but as his longtime friend and fellow activist in that movement, William Rusher reminded us, “surely our highest consolation is knowing that John Ashbrook did live to see his political principle victorious and his public career vindicated.”
It was a long-standing American consensus based on these traditional values that John Ashbrook struggled to reinstitute in this country, a struggle we continue today; and in searching for the solution of our social or economic problems today, we can speak of a matrix, a formula that unlocks the solutions to many different problems; and I believe it is in the political wisdom and the social consensus that began this country, a consensus that still abides here in the Heartland of America and was so evident in the career of John Ashbrook. It is this consensus that holds the key to our modern dilemmas.
From their own harsh experience with intrusive, overbearing government, the Founding Fathers made a great breakthrough in political understanding. They understood that it is the excesses of government, the will to power of one man over another, that has been a principle source of injustice and human suffering through the ages. The Founding Fathers understood that only by making government the servant, not the master, only by positing sovereignty in the people and not the state can we hope to protect freedom and see the political commonwealth prosper. In 1776, the source of government excess was the Crown’s abuse of power and its attempt to suffocate the colonists with its overbearing demands. In our own day, the danger of too much state power has taken a subtler, but no less dangerous form. Out of the best of intentions, government has intervened in areas where it is neither competent nor needed nor wanted by the mass of Americans. …
To some people, government appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favorite projects of various dimensions which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind. They are thus disposed to recognize government an instrument of passion, the art of politics to inflame and direct desire.
Even two centuries ago, the Founding Fathers understood this. They anticipated the danger. John Adams wrote that, “Government tends to run every contingency into an excuse for enhancing power in government” and Thomas Jefferson put it more directly when he predicted, “happiness for America, but only if we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretence of taking care of them.” Now some, of course, mistake this to mean the negation of government. Far to the contrary, it is by clearly restricting the duties of government that we make government efficient and responsive. By preventing government from overextending itself, we stop it from disturbing that intricate but orderly pattern of private transactions among various institutions and individuals who have different social and economic goals. In short, like the Founding Fathers, we recognize the people as sovereign and the source of our social progress. We recognize government’s role in that progress, but only under sharply defined and limited conditions. We remain aware of government’s urge to seek more power, to disturb the social ecology and disrupt the bonds of cooperation and interchange among private individuals and institutions through unnecessary intrusion or expansion.
For John Ashbrook, conservatism was a modern reflection of the insights and wisdom that began the American Republic. His career as a public servant is testimony to this kind of enlightened conservatism. John Ashbrook believed in study and thought. He was close to Ashland College. He did all in his power to encourage the growth of conservative think tanks and policy groups; but he was a practical man as well. In the face of redistricting and an unfavorable political climate for conservative candidates, he won eleven consecutive terms in the House of Representatives. He believed in political action. He was among those select few who began the Draft Goldwater Movement in 1963 and stung the political world by succeeding a year later.
I first came to John’s district at a dinner here with Bill Buckley the spring after that election. He was not discouraged. John looked at the Goldwater Campaign as a first step toward the eventual triumph of his political principles. Those principles are in the ascendancy today in large part due to his efforts. We owe it to him, to ourselves, to our children to stand by those principles, to persevere, until as it was said that night in 1964, in San Francisco by the Presidential candidate John Ashbrook had worked so hard to nominate, “until our cause has won the day, inspired the world, and shown the way to a tomorrow worthy of all our yesterdays.” Thank you all and God bless you.