John Ashbrook: The Happy Loner

William A. Rusher

February 1, 1999

John Ashbrook–a big blond with a ready grin and friendly manner–was a natural-born politician. By the latter part of the 1950’s, when still in his twenties, he was already a member of the Ohio State Assembly, and it surprised no one when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960, at 31. There he was to stay until his tragically early death at 53 in the spring of 1982, and it was there that he built the record for which conservatives honor him to this day.

I had gotten to know John in Young Republican politics in the early 1950s. Until he went to Congress, and for some while thereafter, I thought of him as simply an outsized example of one of the best types of politician: extroverted, gregarious, and by temperament a natural-born team player. I was still under this impression when I invited him, early in September 1961, to fly up to New York to discuss, with me and Clif White (our longtime ally in the Young Republican battles of the 1950s), the creation of what was later to become the National Draft Goldwater Committee.

Ashbrook agreed readily to our proposal, which was to bring together those of our old friends in the Young Republican movement who shared our own conservatism and a growing conviction that someone–in all likelihood Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater–could lead the conservatives to victory in the 1964 Republican national convention.

We drew up a list of invitees, and each agreed to call a third of them. The first meeting was held in Chicago on October 8th, and 22 people attended. A second meeting was then scheduled for December 10th–also in Chicago. Ashbrook attended the first meeting, and failed to attend the second only because thick weather over the Midwest prevented him from flying from Ohio to Chicago at all. But thereafter John, while keeping in contact with us, was not usually present at the nameless little group’s further meetings.

The reason seemed obvious: He was a Congressman, and his first obligation was to his duties in that connection. But slowly I came to believe that John was happiest in his role as a stoutly independent member of the House, and that collective efforts such as our draft-Goldwater cabal were just not his cup of tea. He was thoroughly loyal to Goldwater, of course; he simply felt more comfortable doing his bit for the cause in his own way, and at his own pace.

Recent studies of his record in the House of Representatives bear out this analysis. He was one of the House’s most conservative members: Over his 22 years in Congress, his lifetime "ACU rating" (i.e., his votes on key conservative issues chosen by the American Conservative Union) was an almost incredible 96, out of a theoretically possible 100. But these votes tend to stand on their own; rarely was he seen as a member of a group, let alone a coordinated team.

Thus in 1964, in the teeth of all the pressures to vote for it, he opposed the Civil Rights Act (as Barry Goldwater did, in the Senate) because he feared the expansion of the federal government into a field previously reserved to the individual states–an intrusion that he, like Goldwater, regarded as flatly unconstitutional. He refused to join forces with the Southern Democrats who were also (for far less creditable reasons) opposing the bill, but hewed firmly to his own convictions regarding it.

Similarly, throughout the 1970’s, as a member of the Labor Committee, Ashbrook waged a relentless campaign against the Legal Services Corporation, whose oversight was the responsibility of that committee. The LSC had become little more than a government-financed legal arm of organized liberalism, and Ashbrook fought strenuously against its depredations. In the 1980s President Reagan was to make this cause his own (without, unfortunately, much success), but in the 1970s the battle was Ashbrook’s, and he waged it alone.

Similarly, when he declared himself a candidate for the 1972 Republican presidential nomination (simply as a way of protesting President Nixon’s policies on everything from wage and price controls to recognition of Communist China), he entered the race fully aware of its quixotic nature, and with few concessions to traditional campaign techniques. When his support in the New Hampshire, Florida, and California primaries failed to rise above 10 percent, he abandoned the effort rather than condemn his supporters to soldier on in a cause that was clearly hopeless. But that solitary gesture of defiance was very much of a piece with the stubborn independence that characterized him.

So too was his decision, in 1982, to seek the Republican nomination against Ohio’s incumbent Democratic senator Metzenbaum. He had made up his mind, he told me, that 22 years in the House of Representatives were enough: "It’s either up or out."

As Fate would have it, John Ashbrook died that spring, suddenly and unexpectedly, of a massive gastric hemorrhage. The Happy Loner was never to have the opportunity to run for the Senate. But he left, in nearly a quarter of a century in Washington, an indelible record of what a single stubborn man, imbued with principles he cherishes, can accomplish in a world grown cold with cynicism.

William A. Rusher is a syndicated columnist and the former Publisher of National Review magazine. He is the author of The Rise of the Right (Morrow, 1984).