"I want to be a Congressman," the confident elementary student announced to his classmates and teacher. John Milan Ashbrook was never without a purpose.
Son of a Democrat United States Congressman, community leader and demanding father, John reveled in the often chaotic pursuit of modern day conservatism. Early in his life, John exhibited an extraordinary ability to manage successfully an otherwise daunting schedule. Forty hours a week, early in the morning before many of his classmates were stirring, the Harvard University student drove a truck delivering fresh baked goods to local stores and homes. John graduated from Harvard with honors. He was proud of his industrious nature and readily complimented and encouraged that trait in others.
Perhaps a key to John’s remarkable career was that his indefatigable stamina was fortuitously coupled with an efficient and brilliant mind. In his early twenties, with his undergraduate years hastily behind him, John entered The Ohio State University School of Law. Not content to focus exclusively on academic pursuits, John turned his energy towards his deepest passions: publishing and politics. During the mid 1950s, the tireless law student was Chairman of the Ohio Young Republicans and campaigning to become Chairman of the National Young Republicans. He also was a successful candidate for State Representative and publisher of the Johnstown Independent. The inextricably woven course was set; John evolved into a 20th century Thomas Paine. Invoking modern technology to emulate Paine’s prodigious printing press and pamphleteering, John pioneered modern direct mail before it became a favorite tool of the conservative movement.
John’s mind was so organized that some believed it was photographic. Despite the utter disarray in both his Washington D.C. and Johnstown offices, with books and papers strewn and stacked haphazardly about the room, John could retrieve a single note or piece of paper without a moment’s delay. John also compartmentalized thoughts and ideas brilliantly. He could nimbly jump from topics as diverse as print shop logistics to complex foreign affairs issues, often leaving the listener an intellectual step behind. His genius was not relegated to the organization of chaos. He was renowned for his ability to recall effortlessly names, dates, and places, an invaluable tool for a politician.
Campaigning with John was unpredictable, yet somehow meticulously and intuitively choreographed to reach the desired end. He had an ability to appear ubiquitous, creating a larger-than-life campaign. During his 1960 inaugural congressional race against incumbent Robert Levering, John and his army of young supporters frequently met at the Center Cafe in Newark to regroup after a long hard day of campaigning. The cafe had become the well-known de facto campaign headquarters, so everyone was surprised to learn that John’s opponent was sitting in the front section. John graciously sent for Mr. Levering and invited him to meet the several tables of supporters. After the cordial greeting, John instructed his legions to stealthily exit through the back door, go to their cars, retrieve their coats and hats, then re-enter the cafe through the front door prominently displaying Ashbrook paraphernalia, creating the illusion of another battalion of Ashbrook volunteers. Levering was quoted as sa
ying, "Never run against a man with a swarm of kids and who buys ink by the barrel." That year, John was the only Republican congressional challenger in Congress to win following the disastrous Nixon-Kennedy debate; local, state and national officials took note.
Dedicating his life to the emerging conservative movement was instinctual for John. He also knew that communicating his philosophy to voters was not enough to ensure a full and enduring revolution. The movement’s lifeblood, he believed, was dependent upon properly preparing and inspiring the next generation of leaders, something he did throughout his lifetime. Mention the name John Ashbrook to Gordon Humphrey, former U.S. Senator from New Hampshire; Steve Symms, former U.S. Senator from Idaho, who often referred to himself as an "Ashbrook Republican"; Harrison Schmitt, former astronaut and U.S. Senator from New Mexico, many House members, and countless state and local politicians and activists, including our good friends, former State Representative, now Judge William Batchelder, the late State Senator Thomas Van Meter and Federal Judge George Smith–they all agree, he was instrumental in building their political foundations.
In his private life, John was a voracious reader and a collector of trinkets and devices. He began each day’s agenda only after having read several major daily newspapers. And, throughout the day, whether in a car, coffee shop, or airplane, John continued to inhale newspapers and periodicals for contemporary edification. He also had a fondness for books on American history and, of course, revered the great thinkers and writers from the Age of Enlightenment including Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, John Locke, John Stewart Mill and a relatively obscure French lawyer named Entienne De La Boetie. Musically, he enjoyed the Boston Pops, Blue Grass, and some types of classical music with an ear for march-style music. John often attended movies. He also collected coins and stamps, a hobby he learned from his father. He took great pleasure in amassing the latest in printing technology and took pride in understanding how to operate the equipment, including developing pictures in the dark room.
Unlike many leaders of today, John stood by his principles, no matter how unpopular they were. He found the process of compromise contemptuous and scoffed at those who bowed to political pressure. One of the more controversial votes during the twenty-one year congressional career was his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Although a few constitutional conservatives commended his courage, most conservatives and Republicans questioned his political acumen. Now, thirty-five years after its enactment, John’s prophetic concerns about creating a bureaucratic quagmire and a government-sanctioned, albeit questionably constitutional, quota system are realized. In 1987, prior to being appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas articulated John’s position by stating, "In a free society I don’t think there would be any need for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to exist. Had we lived up to our Constitution, there would certainly be no need. There would have bee
n no need for manumission, either." Interestingly, John was the only Congressman north of the Mason-Dixon Line to vote against the Act. This provocative vote earned John a place on the Black Panther’s assignation list; he was number eight.
With fond remembrances, I write this article. John’s enduring contributions continue in the heart, soul, and conscience of those courageous enough to carry the conservative banner. His presence, leadership, and voice are painfully absent in this time of political disarray. For those who never knew him, he was the Henry Hyde, Robert A. Taft, Sr., and the William Bennett of his time. He was truly one of the great conservative leaders in the last half of the Twentieth Century.
William Almendinger is President of Van Meter, Ashbrook, & Associations. He was administrative assistant and District Representative to John Ashbrook in both his Washington and district office.