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Looking for John Ashbrook

On Principle, v7n1

February 1999

by Jonathan Riehl

I first encountered John Ashbrook three years ago in a classroom at the University of Virginia. He appeared on a huge video screen for about 45 seconds, to announce his candidacy for the 1972 Republican Presidential nomination to our Modern American History class. I had never heard anything about this outspoken man from Ohio, despite an avid interest in politics and postwar American history. Intrigued, I decided I would focus my honors thesis on his piece of history.

I soon realized that I would have to make due without much help from the library. To this day there exists exactly one book about Ashbrook, itself under 50 pages and limited in scope to his 1972 campaign. This lack of secondary material would prove challenging–but would also be the impetus for a personally rewarding experience.

A quick search on the Internet revealed to me the existence of the Ashbrook Center, and a few e-mails later I was on a path that would lead me to Ashland, Ohio, and the still relatively unexplored archives of this architect of modern conservatism. The staff of the Center was extremely supportive, facilitating my project in many ways. Over the two-year course of my thesis research I spent more than a few late nights on the top floor of the Ashland University library tower in solitary communion with the Ashbrook papers. What I found was a historian’s goldmine: decades of congressional correspondence, as well as Ashbrook’s personal diaries and paraphernalia–everything from Christmas cards to notes scrawled during Subcommittee sessions.

Thanks to some additional help from the Ashbrook staff and a dose of amateur investigative efforts, I was able to add a uniquely personal element to my mission of resurrection-through-research. Transforming my work into "living history" were a series of personal interviews with Ashbrook’s old friends, family, and colleagues. One contact led to another and the proverbial pieces began falling into place. After months of immersion in Ashbrook’s physical and personal legacy in all its forms–written, spoken, remembered–I felt like I had accomplished much more than a successful academic exercise. I had found John Ashbrook. I felt like I knew him.

And I liked the guy. While we might not have agreed on certain political issues, I stand in awe of his utter conviction, his intellectual tenacity, and his devotion to his ideals. He was a man of great principle possessed of equally great character–in both senses of the word! As Henry Hyde said at his memorial service in 1982, "I don’t know where we’re going to get another John Ashbrook." For all his individualism, though, there is something quintessentially American about this man who followed his heart, feared no one, and gave his spirited best to the work he saw before him.

I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to discover John Ashbrook, and to contribute to his legacy in my own small way. I’m sorry I missed him while he was with us–and I can’t help feeling that his example would be welcomed today by many more like myself.

Jonathan Riehl is a graduate of the University of Virginia and is currently working for political consultant and pollster Frank Luntz in Arlington, VA. He hopes to pursue a career in public affairs.

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