John M. Ashbrook was one of the great conservatives, one of the great resisters to the tide of New Deal and Great Society liberalism. He was a determined political warrior. His whole life was spent in the arena of political combat. He was one of those rare men who do not compromise, who do not negotiate. He lived beyond the ordinary give and take of conventional politics. His courageous opposition to liberalism often meant he had to oppose the leadership of his own party. Not only did this define his political life and character, but it had great consequences for the Republican Party and the nation. The ideas that he articulated so well still live.
John Ashbrook’s whole life may be summed up (in his own words) in this: He always stood against "an establishment which has no legitimacy but force at its disposal." He stood for constitutional government not out of interest, but from principle. He criticized his own party above all when he considered the Republican Party drifting "from the mainstream of Republican thinking." It didn’t matter to him that he would be sitting in opposition to a president of his own party, since Nixon compromised his principles between 1968 and 1972.
His defense of his own (and what he took to be his party’s) principles were always vigorous and intelligent. He would remind people that the Republican Party was born of principle and prudence; it prospered in the 1850’s (and replaced the timid Whigs) because it was willing to take a constitutional stand against the expansion of slavery into new territories. And even though it condemned slavery as a moral evil, the Republicans knew that constitutionally it could not be abolished where it currently existed. "One overriding fact," wrote John Ashbrook, "emerges from the struggle which produced the Republican Party: the very foundation of the Party was based on its willingness to take a stand." The Republican Party was born from courage, not timidity. The party had no reason to be timid. And he had no reason to be timid.
He was full of integrity. Representative Henry Hyde said, after his death, that John Ashbrook "was incapable of sham. He was incapable of posturing. He was incapable of saying something that he did not believe and he did not mean. He had that rare quality of grace under pressure, which is Hemingway’s definition of courage."
His word, once given, had the weight of gold. He did not consider honesty to be merely good policy. The trust that he established among his political friends and (even) adversaries is beyond dispute. His piercing intellect and capacious heart were known to all and valued by all. He was a master of the spoken word. I have met many liberal academics from colleges around the area who told me of meetings and seminars that Ashbrook held with them and their students. He insisted that these seminars be private, he didn’t want to become known as an intellectual, for if that reputation were established, his integrity would be questioned by citizens who–rightly–mistrusted intellectuals as a class. Even these liberal academics valued his sharp mind and his many virtues. They kept silent about those sessions, and were delighted when he returned.
His principled effort to oppose President Nixon in the primaries had an ill-omened beginning. On December 28, 1971, a few weeks after he announced that he would challenge Nixon in the primaries, he poked fun at himself during an interview with the Wall Street Journal. He told the reporter, according to the article, of "his first campaign contribution, from a Nixon loyalist who wrote that he had solicited for Mr. Ashbrook all over Mansfield, Ohio, and got $1.32."
Ashbrook said that he was running against Nixon to offer an alternative, a "rallying point" for those who wanted to remind Nixon of the promises he made in 1968. The campaign was not successful, and was always in financial difficulty. But such a bold challenge against an incumbent president set the stage for Reagan’s challenge against Ford in 1976, and Reagan’s victory in 1980.
John Ashbrook died too young. We know this from the honest mourning of his colleagues and friends. All men die. But some men die before their work is fully accomplished. When this happens, the mourning by those left behind is deep and heartfelt, and the event seems especially unfair. It is, in part, because of this that the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs has prospered. People understand that at least his spirit, and the things for which he stood, may be kept alive through our work. It is because of this that we at the Center take such delight in our work.
Teddy Roosevelt said that proper credit should be given to "the man in the arena, the man whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood" from combat, who is willing to fight valiantly for his beliefs and whose place "shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory or defeat." He had men like John M. Ashbrook in mind.