John M. Ashbrook: A Personal Reminiscence
Wlliam G. Batchelder
February 1, 1999
American conservatives faced two pre-eminent enemies in the 1960’s. International Communism had just taken control of Cuba ninety miles off U.S. shores. The bloody repression of Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956 had shown the world that the U.S. "establishment" would not assist captive nations in their fight for freedom despite U.S. promises at the end of World War II.
The so-called "moderate" wing of the Republican party represented a quite different style of enemy but the more dangerous one. Prior to the Goldwater Campaign of 1964, many American conservatives did not realize that "moderate" Republicans would do whatever it took, including supporting the duplicitous President Lyndon B. Johnson, to stop Senator Goldwater’s presidential candidacy and the attendant ascendancy of American conservatism. Some American conservatives had seen it coming in 1960 when Vice President Richard Nixon, then the GOP candidate for President, surrendered the party platform to Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the archetypal east coast "moderate" establishment Republican. Senator Barry Goldwater had addressed the 1960 convention after the adoption of this "moderate" platform and said essentially that conservatives should grow up, that we had lost that round, that we should go home, take over the party, and come together in 1964 to
adopt a conservative platform. Then, unlike the "moderates" of 1964, Goldwater urged support of the ticket. Senator Goldwater was principled, a gifted orator and courageous as a lion, but he was not an organizer. He certainly did not wish to be the candidate "leader".
John M. Ashbrook was first elected to the Federal House in 1960. He was one of the most idealistic and principled of all of those members of Congress who served at any point from that 1960 election until John’s death in April of 1982. He became, despite his youth, one of the handful of great leaders in the American conservative renaissance. As an orator and debater he was peerless, able to take complex ideas and render them crystal clear for those who didn’t devote their lives to politics. John Ashbrook was elected to the Federal House on a simple and straight-forward campaign of limited central government (limited both in taxation and in regulatory authority), State’s rights, anti-communism and what are now called family values. He was remarkable for his strict, consistent adherence to those ideals regardless of political cost.
John Ashbrook, through his background as national Young Republican chairman in the 1950’s, had lists of young conservatives all across America. Long before bankers developed affinity cards and radio advertisers "segmented the market", and yes, even before Richard Viguerie built the great conservative mailing lists, John had lists. All pharmacists licensed in Ohio, Kiwanians in every nook and cranny of his district–literally hundreds of categories and tens of thousands of names.
In 1962, when the "Draft Goldwater" movement began as a luncheon exercise of William A. Rusher, F. Clifton White, and John Ashbrook, John brought with his lists a roster of committed young conservatives from all over the country. That list began the Goldwater campaign and that campaign, along with the founding of National Review, was the linchpin of the rebirth of American Conservatism as a vast national movement without mass media support or comprehension. This was a true grassroots movement.
Most "moderate" Republicans, especially after the defeat of Senator Goldwater, sought to go along with President Lyndon Johnson by offering minor amendments to legislation to minimally decrease expenditures or turn federally controlled programs into partial block grants. In one Republican House Caucus meeting, a senior Republican argued in favor of a federal rat control program because it would demonstrate Republican compassion for big cities. This senior Republican said that if the Republican Caucus gave support, the Democrats would accept a lower funding level. John said, in front of the whole Republican House Caucus, "Congressman, I always knew you were a whore, but until now I did not realize that you were a cheap whore."
In other words, this program had no constitutional reason for being funded by the federal government in the first place. Therefore, acceptance of the program was evil in itself, and funding the program at a lower level was a clear defeat for limited government.
John often described the Federal Congress as "a group of unproductive people taking money from productive citizens and giving money to other unproductive citizens." John often submitted amendments during appropriation debates which were educational for the members and the public. One such amendment was a limit on the number of bureaucrats in the Department of Agriculture to the total number of farmers in America. That amendment was defeated.
By 1971, the leftward drift of the Nixon administration in domestic policy had become pandemic. John Ashbrook announced his candidacy for President and received warm and friendly support from Human Events, National Review, and other conservative publications. President Nixon fearing that thunder on the right might destroy his Southern strategy, suddenly lurched to the right on most substantive issues. At that point, John was campaigning in Florida and California, and grassroots Goldwater supporters were proud to have such an articulate candidate articulating the conservative vision. The Nixon people were tearing their hair out as he traveled in his own unique, unscheduled, one-man campaign. He moved the GOP to the right and thereby made Nixon’s landslide defeat of McGovern meaningful.
John readily acknowledged mistakes, and when those mistakes were serious, his acknowledgment was serious. John had been convinced that he should vote for the Gulf of Tomkin resolution by other anti-Communists. He had not intended to vote for it because he believed that the Federal Constitution required a declaration of war before the U.S. entered a conflict, which was essentially Senator Taft’s argument over Korea, and, perhaps more important, because Lyndon Johnson was incapable of telling the truth, even when the truth would have served him as well as his lies. John was sincerely convinced of LBJ’s venality. For years thereafter, John would apologize for that vote that LBJ would use to justify the entire Vietnam mess.
At all times, John felt that a small group must be insurgent, or revolutionary, in the tradition of Patrick Henry not Che Guevara. At dinner one night, John said to a group of us, "We must be the Viet-Cong of the conservative movement, sneaking up on the established at night, and throwing bombs over their walls."
John was combative and confrontational against statists, and especially all moderate Republicans, who he knew were the enemy of a revived, dedicated, idealistic, conservative party. Of one press favorite, a so-called conservative, who was really a moderate, John said, "Way down deep, he’s shallow." This kind of verbal torpedo, below the waterline, struck many and on numerous occasions left only an oil slick.
On all matters of principle, John Ashbrook was immovable, courageous, even politically foolhardy. His courage and stamina made a real difference in the outcome of the world struggle against communism and the birth of what became the Reagan revolution. He was an original and we shall not soon see his like again.
Judge William G. Batchelder, a personal friend of John Ashbrook beginning with his first Congressional campaign of 1960, served as his surrogate speaker during John’s illness at the time of the 1982 U.S. Senate campaign. Mr. Batchelder served for thirty years in the Ohio House of Representatives where he became Speaker Pro Tempore, and now serves as Common Pleas Judge in Medina County.