William A. Rusher, a conservative strategist for more than 50 years who helped engineer Barry Goldwater's nomination as the Republican candidate for president in 1964, has died, officials confirmed Monday.
Rusher died Saturday in a nursing facility in San Francisco at the age of 87 after a long illness. His death was confirmed by Richard Vetterli, a spokesman for the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office.
His influence was felt on decades of U.S. politics, from the 1961 stirrings of the "draft Goldwater" effort to opposing Richard Nixon's overtures to China in the 1970s to advising Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s.
Rusher also helped shape the public debate through syndicated columns in newspapers around the country. He spent 31 years as publisher of National Review, the magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr. that was a postwar cornerstone of anti-communism and American conservative thought.
"There wasn't an active candidate or a politician who wasn't familiar with his work," said Brian Kennedy, president of the Claremont Institute, a conservative public-policy think tank in Claremont, Calif. Rusher joined the institute as a distinguished fellow after leaving the National Review in 1988.
Sal Russo, a Sacramento Republican operative who is the chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, said he developed a friendship with Rusher back when Russo was working for then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in the 1960s. Buckley and Rusher laid the groundwork for the conservative agenda, he said, that would be personified by Reagan as president.
"He has really been somewhat of a hidden giant of the conservative movement," Russo said. "He was there at the very beginning, when they came up with the idea of what has become the modern conservative movement."
Russo said while Buckley was the face of the conservative movement, Rusher worked hard behind the scenes to pull the coalition together. "Bill was a crucial person in that whole process. Buckley of course was full of ideas but Rusher was very organized, fastidious and he provided all the organizational heft and played a big role in the Young Americans for Freedom."
Rusher called for the creation of a third major political party to replace the GOP in his 1975 book "The Making of the New Majority Party," and made it clear in his writings that he believed Reagan could lead it to victory. An effort to launch the party quickly fell apart, but Reagan's victory as a Republican followed soon after.
The liberal bastion of San Francisco may have seemed an odd place for Rusher to land, but he loved the climate and the sophistication, said David Frisk, who met Rusher in 1992 as part of an informal group of conservative journalists in the Bay Area and whose book on Rusher is scheduled for publication this summer. "He always had an interest in young conservatives, in getting to know them and encouraging them," he said.
Rusher's intellectual interests ranged wide, taking in the Enlightenment and its connections with modern American conservative thought but also opera and poetry, friends said.
"I remember coming back from a dinner party in the East Bay with him and he recited Chaucer all the way across the Bay Bridge," said Roger Mertz, a San Francisco lawyer who represented Rusher and counted him among his friends.
No family members survive Rusher, Mertz said. A memorial is planned in San Francisco on April 28.
Associated Press writers Judy Lin in Sacramento and John S. Marshall in San Francisco contributed to this report.