Rusher asked how he would describe Barry Goldwater's role.
Reagan thought a moment and replied: I guess you would have to call him the John the Baptist of our movement.
I resisted the impulse to lean in and ask, "Sir, if Barry Goldwater was John the Baptist, who would that make you?"
The death of George McGovern brought back thoughts of these two men who suffered two of the greatest defeats in presidential history.
McGovern was an unapologetic liberal from South Dakota. Goldwater was Mr. Conservative and proud of it. Both had been World War II pilots. Goldwater had flown "over the hump," the Himalayas, into China. George McGovern flew bombing runs over the Ploesti oil fields.
McGovern had been at the Progressive Party convention in 1948 that nominated Henry Wallace to run against Harry Truman. Goldwater voted against the Senate censure of Joe McCarthy in 1954 and was one of only six Republicans to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1964, Goldwater led his party to a 22-point defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson, winning only five states of the Deep South and Arizona.
Eight years later, McGovern lost every state but Massachusetts to Richard Nixon in the worst rout ever sustained by a nominee of his party. In 1984, McGovern would be joined in that dubious distinction of a 49-state defeat by Walter Mondale.
Yet unlike others who have lost presidential bids in modern times -- Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain -- Goldwater and McGovern proved to be men ahead of their time.
Though a reluctant candidate who had to be "drafted," Goldwater became the political instrument of a rising conservative movement that used his campaign to tear the Republican Party away from an Eastern liberal establishment that had controlled it for generations and dictated its nominees.
In 1960, Vice President Nixon had traveled to New York to cut a deal with and mollify Nelson Rockefeller. But by 1968, it was the endorsement of Goldwater and conservatives like John Tower of Texas and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina that were Nixon's keys to the nomination. After 1964, the liberal establishment never again imposed a nominee on the GOP.
But between the movement that captured the nomination for Goldwater and the cause that captured the Democratic Party for McGovern, there were differences not only of philosophy.
The Goldwater people were rebels. They wanted to overthrow and displace the old leadership. Many McGovernites were revolutionaries.