“Bruce died today.”
When I received the phone call from Los Angeles with those words on Monday night, I knew immediately what it meant: Bruce Herschensohn — film-maker, author, TV commentator, Pepperdine University professor, and Republican U.S. Senate nominee in California in 1992 — had died earlier in the day at age 88.
During my last visit to Los Angeles in November, I realized that Bruce’s health had declined and his familiar baritone voice and effervescent personality were not what they usually were.
But to me, Bruce Herschensohn could not die. He had accomplished so much, and moved so many with the printed, spoken, and recorded word that he seemed to have jammed three lifetimes into one.
With George H.W. Bush writing off California in 1992 and Bill Clinton sweeping the Golden State, Republicans went down in a big way. With an upbeat conservative message and legions of volunteers and first-time donors attracted to his personality, Herschensohn ran one million votes ahead of his party’s national ticket.
In losing to Democrat Barbara Boxer by 48% to 43%, the conservative hopeful nevertheless became and remained an inspiration to up-and-coming activists and leaders in California. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., former State GOP Chairman John McGraw, and former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, to name a few, all cite him as hero and role model.
Easily recognized throughout Southern California from his years sparring with former Sen. John Tunney, D-Caif. on KABC-TV, “we differed on everything, but I loved John,” his appearances on TV talk shows, and that strong-but-losing Senate race, Bruce had time to talk to anyone who stopped and asked his opinion — just as he was unfailingly generous giving career advice to the eager students at Pepperdine he taught in his honors course on foreign policy.
Like his friend William F. Buckley, Bruce Herschensohn never grew cross or dismissive with the most liberal of arguers. He respectfully listened to all one had to say and then, he told me with a laugh, “I’d explain in a friendly way why they were all wrong.”
“You’ve got to pick Bruce!” my soon-to-be wife insisted as we discussed the witnesses for our wedding in 2002. “He’s the best best man we could have.” I agreed and Bruce was standing up for us at St. Matthew’s Cathedral 39 years after he was last in the same church to film President Kennedy’s funeral.
That was part of “Years of Lightning, Day of Drums,” the acclaimed U.S. Information Agency film on JFK’s accomplishments. It was written, directed, and filmed by Herschensohn (who also composed its musical score by humming into a recorder and having the recording set to music), and is the lone USIA film ever shown on U.S. television, this exception requiring an act of Congress.
People who watched him debate political opponents or saw him teach a packed classroom were often left spellbound by Herschensohn’s knowledge of issues and recollection of history. They were left even more spellbound to discover that this “smartest kid in the class” had never gone to college and learned current events through an exhaustive regimen of reading news stories and their historic background.
Born in Milwaukee and raised in Los Angeles, the young Herschensohn joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950 and served in the Korean War, although he was the first to admit he never saw action.
Upon his discharge, he returned to his old job as a messenger at RKO Pictures and began pursuing his love of film-making from his parents’ garage. This pastime became a profitable venture, as Herschensohn started making training films for General Dynamics at its San Diego headquarters.
In 1956, he had launched his own business and had contracts with the U.S. Information Agency. For the next 12 years, Herschensohn produced films on provocative topics ranging from segregation in the South to the Vietnam War to the space program, of which Herschensohn was an unabashed booster his entire life.
“I was surprised when President Johnson called me in [in 1968] and asked me to head the Motion Picture and Television Service at USIA,” he once told me. “I told him I was a lifelong Republican, that I had voted for Nixon in 1960 and Goldwater in ’64. He shook his head and laughed, and said he didn’t care what I was so long as [I] kept making those movies!”
Herschensohn’s stint at USIA ended abruptly in April, 1972, when — in a TV film with then-Sen. James Buckley (C-R-N.Y.) — he said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright, D.-Ark., was “very naïve and stupid” for trying to “downgrade” USIA in a way that “could be tragic for this nation and catastrophic for the people of other nations.”
Amid the furor over his remarks, Herschensohn resigned from USIA — only to be quickly picked up as a special assistant to President Nixon just as the Watergate scandal was beginning to envelope the White House. Joining with Pat Buchanan and other conservatives close to the president, Herschensohn helped rally supporters of the embattled president.
“And I told him not to resign, right up to the day he did,” he proudly recalled to me.
After several months of working with Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn at his Vermont home, Herschensohn returned to Los Angeles. His response to “Washington Behind Closed Doors,” a TV drama based on the Nixon White House, led to the start of his years as a commentator on KABC. And that led to the Senate race that fell short but motivated so many.
“Like a lot of people, I cried the night Bruce lost,” the late Orange County, Calif., Republican Chairman Tom Fuentes once said. “But like the volunteers that he motivated, the issues he raised — from the flat tax to an international organization of democratic countries only — lived on and grew. He was a man of consequence.”
Bruce Herschensohn is gone. But that baritone voice, that mischevious sense of humor, the passion for issues, and the graciousness of the “best best man” are edged in the hearts and memories of all who knew him.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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