The Political Education of John M. Ashbrook
February 1, 1999
In July of 1961 William Rusher, Publisher of National Review, traveled to Washington D. C. to meet with Congressman John M. Ashbrook of Ohio. While at lunch, Rusher and Ashbrook discussed the prospects for a conservative Presidential candidate in 1964.
They talked about the disciplined political machine they had built in the Young Republicans. "You know John," Rusher mused, "if we held a meeting of our old YR crowd today, I’ll bet it would be about the third largest faction in the Republican party." After lunch, Ashbook took Rusher back to his office. Ashbrook pulled open a file drawer containing the contacts he had made as National YR Chairman. Ashbrook simply said, "These people still know me."
Two days after returning to New York City, Rusher met F. Clifton White, a public relations consultant and a friend of Rusher’s from the New York Young Republicans, for lunch and told White about Ashbrook’s files. They discussed merging the names in those files with the allies White had made in the regular Republican Party. Both White and Rusher realized their days in the YR’s were over and they now required a vehicle to propel them into the regular party structure if they were to capture the Republican Presidential Nomination for a conservative. They hoped the network of individuals contained in the files of Ashbrook and White would become the basis for the National Draft Goldwater Committee, the first true draft of a presidential candidate in American Political History.
This leads us to two interesting questions. First, why would the publisher of the nation’s most important journal of conservative thought, a Congressman, and a successful public relations consultant be concerned with the internal politics of the National Young Republican Federation, and secondly why would they think that contacts made while members of the YR’s could help them elect a president? The answers to these questions will provide us with some insight into the political education of John M. Ashbrook.
In 1949, William Rusher, a Wall Street attorney, joined the New York (City) Young Republican Club where he quickly became friends with F. Clifton White, the leader of an upstate coalition of Young Republicans based in Ithaca. In June of 1950, White was elected Chairman of the New York State Young Republican Federation. With White’s backing, Rusher was named the Chairman of the Board of Directors, the second highest post in the State Federation. White and Rusher were eventually able to gain control of the New York City Club with the election of James L. Guilmartin as its President.
At that time, neither White nor Rusher would have described themselves as "conservative." In his book, Rise of the Right, Rusher wrote that at the beginning of his friendship with F. Clifton White, the technical aspects of politics and dreams of political importance held their interest. "On political principles, however, I do not recall that we dwelt very long. We understood their importance, in fact, when they came up, we treated them with reverence–but the Dewey dispensation in Republican politics was the common ground between us . . . ." During the course of the 1950’s, both White and Rusher had a sort of conversion to conservatism. White traces his commitment to conservatism to a concern for his children and the direction he saw liberal politicians taking the country. Rusher, conversely, found his conservatism in the emerging conservative intellectual movement.
From his position as leader of the dominant group in the New York State Young Republican Federation, F. Clifton White set out to make national YR politics his personal domain. The group which White and Rusher organized became known as "The Syndicate," a term originally coined by those opposing the White-Rusher group, but eventually adopted by them. So strong was this new faction within the Young Republicans, F. Clifton White and William Rusher were able to pick the National YR Chairman from 1949-1959. As White would later reflect in a 1965 interview, "I was either the official or unofficial campaign manager for Young Republican National Chairman from 1949-1957. So I knew a lot of people."
In 1955 there was a stirring of a new base in the Young Republican power structure. When Charles McWhorter was elected chairman in 1955, he was backed for the first time by a Midwestern block of states led by the Taft stronghold of Ohio. McWhorter cemented this new political powerbase for White and Rusher by naming John Ashbrook, the head of the Ohio YR’s, to be the Executive Director of the Young Republican campaign effort for Eisenhower in 1956. But the Taft faction of the YR federation still controlled the platform committee and the members of the committee reflected a continuing commitment to the Eisenhower administration.
By 1957, White and Rusher were prepared to abandon their ties with the Eastern Establishment and use the new conservative block of Midwest and Far West Republicans they had been cultivating. John Ashbrook became the natural choice to appeal to the conservatives in the west and White became Ashbrook’s national campaign manager with Rusher acting as floor manager at the convention. White and Ashbrook criss-crossed the U.S. to gain the support of conservatives in the YR structure. In doing so, they brought scores of conservatives into local YR organizations. They also built important relationships with conservatives already holding important positions in the regular party structure and in their communities.
This was to be the last YR national convention attended by F. Clifton White and William Rusher. White did not make an appearance on the convention floor, preferring to remain in his room at the Carlton House across the street from the convention. When Ashbrook won the chairmanship on the first ballot, Rusher called White and told him they had "pitched the political equivalent of a no-hit ballgame" and he suggested they should quit while they were ahead. White agreed with him.
The importance of the Ashbrook victory was not lost on conservatives inside and outside the YR structure. They saw that they could now use the Young Republican organization to establish themselves in the Party. More importantly, the ability of conservatives to elect a chairman without the support of its traditional eastern powerbase states ushered in a new era of YR politics and created the possibility of utilizing similar geographical alliances in the regular Republican Party. Geographic alliances which would eventually elect Presidents and recapture the U.S. House of Representatives.
It was the 1959 election of Ned Cushing of Downes, Kansas which gave "The Syndicate" complete control of the internal YR organization. Although not physically at the convention to oversee Cushing’s campaign, White and Rusher worked by phone through their "contacts to ensure the election of Cushing." This convention also saw the election of Judy Fernald as National Co-Chair.
John M. Ashbrook, F. Clifton White, and William Rusher learned the nuts-and-bolts of political organization and forged the personal relationships which allowed them to become leaders in both the conservative movement and the Republican Party through their efforts to gain and hold leadership positions within the National Young Republican Federation. The knowledge they acquired would subsequently show itself as a trailer behind the Cow Place in 1964, Ashbrook’s own principled Presidential bid in 1972, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and finally in the creation of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs to ensure those lessons were not forgotten. The political education of John Ashbrook can then not only be seen as the professional development of one man, but the coming of age of an entire political movement.
Jay Hartz is a 1993 graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar program and a recipient of the James Madison Award. He has an M.A. in History from Villonova University and has recently started a public relations company in Louisville, Kentucky.