Bruce Herschensohn, R.I.P.

Bruce Herschensohn on C-SPAN in 2014. (via C-SPAN)

The conservative movement mourns the disappearance of a real mensch.

When Bruce Herschensohn, who died Monday at the age of 88, ran for the California Senate in 1992, he was supposed to debate his opponent, Representative Barbara Boxer, before the US Committee on Israeli Public Affairs (AIPAC). The intellectually limited boxer knew she was no match for Bruce, who, although he never attended college, was a traveling encyclopedia; at the last minute, she insisted that there be no debate, just prepared statements. Bruce, always blunt, if not confrontational, then shocked the crowd by lambasting AIPAC for giving in to Boxer’s demands. Both candidates were Jewish, but the hip boxer was a lukewarm supporter of Israel and a leftist far removed from mainstream Judaism. Bruce, a strong supporter of Israel, although not so religious, deeply respected believers and traditions, and he refused to campaign on Jewish holidays.

Watching a preview of his campaign attacking Boxer on The Problems, Bruce insisted it be redone because Boxer’s photo was unflattering to her. It was a real mensch, so much so that he would probably edit that first paragraph, eliminating the reference to Boxer’s tiny IQ. Never a gentleman, Bruce always focused on problems, never on anything that could even be considered a personal attack. Unfortunately, his political opponents have not returned the favor.

I consulted about this campaign in the Senate with my colleague and friend, the preeminent Ken Khachigian, who was doing the impossible: to turn geek Bruce into a quasi-populist. In an effective television commercial that informed voters that Senators were counting on elevator operators, Bruce said, “I will push my own buttons. It was ironic that Bruce, who had been a documentary filmmaker in the 1960s, thrived in the 30-second political positions he hated. When he was covered on the news and in the newspapers, candidate Bruce was intense: there was good and bad, and nothing in between. Voters who disagreed with Bruce on the issues admired his integrity so much that they began to support him, and it looked like, despite Bill Clinton’s momentum to the top of the Democratic ticket, he could win. .

Sadly, the bureaucrats of the Republican National Senate Committee doubted my polls and hijacked our campaign funding at a crucial point in the race when its television purchase eclipsed ours. That, and a dirty Boxer trick coating Bruce at the end, ensured his defeat. Had he won, the United States Senate would have won some sort of 19th-century orator – a man who would have stayed awake late at night writing his own speeches, then delivered them with absolute moral clarity, the senators and the gallery listening attentively. to his words. If there was a debate on the legislation, there is no doubt that Bruce would always have won the argument, if not always the vote.

Bruce was a paradox. Like Richard Nixon, whom he admired so much – the two were close and Bruce remained loved by the Nixon family long after President Nixon died – he was an introverted material, barely a candidate. I have known candidates who were not enthusiastic about fundraising, but Bruce was something else. “I will only run on one condition: I will never ask anyone to donate money to my campaign, ”he said at the start of the race – and to Ken’s dismay, he thought so too.

After Frank Shakespeare, the ‘wonder boy’ of television in the 1950s – he was for a time the country’s youngest TV director – helped guide Nixon to the presidency in 1968, he became director of the US Information Agency (USIA). in the Nixon administration. Bruce was already director of the USIA’s film division and continued in this post, offering America films for international distribution that told our story and hit communism hard. The fact that he was known as a supporter of Goldwater in 1964 had not prevented President Lyndon Johnson from personally recruiting him to this post.

My first meeting with Bruce almost half a century ago was in what is now the Trump Hotel in Washington; then it was the “old post office building” housing some government offices, including the command suite that accompanied Bruce’s work in the USIA. I was a little over a year out of college and a key contributor to Senator James L. Buckley (R., NY), whose winning campaign I had helped put together. (The Buckley brothers Jim and Bill were close to Shakespeare, Bruce’s boss, hence the connection.)

By this point, Bruce had already built a formidable body of work in documentary filmmaking, putting his name to everything from the 90 Minutes. JFK: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums, made as a tribute after the Kennedy assassination, to an assortment of pro-American films with narrators such as Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck. Perhaps the most successful American propaganda film of all time is his Oscar-winning short about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Soviet Politburo knew who he was and hated him.

Bruce was as precise in his language when writing and speaking as he was in directing his films. He checked and double-checked the facts to be absolutely correct and presented the other side fairly, wrongly. On a personal level, his trademark was self-defeating humor. In public he seemed serious and severe; in private, he was the low-key. He had many liberal friends who respected his integrity and humanity; his work on a film documenting Jackie Kennedy’s trip to India led the Kennedy family to personally select him for Lightning years. And his mentorship to future Conservative leaders and writers has had a profound impact on the movement.

There are a lot of Bruce Herschensohn stories out there, but there is perhaps no more appropriate way to conclude than with the story of how he entered the Conservative movement. What some now call the “deep state” at the time consisted of those in the State Department, the USIA, and the CIA who believed that the best way to fight communism was socialism. Senator J. William Fulbright (D., Ark.), A segregationist who did not particularly like blacks or Jews, was also the first “anti-communist” in the United States Senate. He opposed the anti-Soviet message of the USIA. When Bruce appeared on Senator Buckley Report to constituents statewide television program and called Fulbright, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “naive and stupid”, I suggested we take that out. Bruce insisted that if that was not a problem for Senator Buckley, the show should be broadcast as recorded. My warning to both of them fell on deaf ears, and Bruce’s remark came to light.

Public controversy of course ensued, and when Bruce refused to apologize, Shakespeare had to fire him to appease Fulbright. Shakespeare felt terrible, as did I, but Bruce felt liberated. He only had one problem: “I don’t have a job,” he said. “Can you get me speaking engagements?” I’ll even talk for free. Luckily we were able, and once he hit the speaking circuit, Bruce became a big draw. Soon he was paid. His love of the country inspired young people, and he developed a national following that stuck with him after his return to Los Angeles as a top notch conservative television and radio commentator.

Bruce was so much in his life: a producer and director of documentaries; a writer of scripts, music, chronicles and books; a speaker and a debater; a television and radio commentator; a foreign affairs expert and senior researcher at Pepperdine University School of Public Policy; and a mentor to generations of professional curators. He had a profound impact on countless others along the way, me included. I am honored to have known him and to honor him here. We will miss him.