March 4, 2008


William F. Buckley’s Unmaking of a Mayor: . . . and the making of a national coalition (Fred Siegel, 3 March 2008, City Journal)

Buckley’s sparkling account of the campaign, The Unmaking of a Mayor, published in 1966, is a meld of journalism, literature, and political essay, as well as a powerful critique of 1960s Great Society liberalism. Early on he sets the scene: “You can’t walk from one end of New York to the other without a good chance of losing your wallet, your maidenhead, or your life; or without being told that white people are bigoted, that Negroes are shiftless, that free enterprise is the enemy of the working class, that Norman Thomas has betrayed socialism, and that the only thing that will save New York is for the whole United States to become like New York.” [...]

Lindsay’s chief rival in the 1965 mayoral race was Abe Beame, a Brooklyn clubhouse Democrat as short and dowdy as Lindsay was tall and handsome. But despite their differences in appearance, they were, Buckley noted, virtually identical in assuming that higher taxes and more money from Washington would solve all the city’s problems. (When asked his opinion of his two rivals, Buckley replied, “The differences between Mr. Beame and Mr. Lindsay are biological, not political.”) When Buckley further showed that Gotham sent far more to Washington than it received, he was met with incredulity by the many organized interest groups that depended on government subventions. The interest groups, Buckley explained presciently, were strangling the city. “New York,” he said, “is reaching the point where it faces the marginal disutility of bloc satisfaction”—where, that is, members of each “bloc” or interest group would receive no more from government than they would pay in taxes to support the entire scheme.

Buckley’s biting wit in the TV debates, all the more important because the newspapers were then on strike, made him the central figure in the campaign, notes George Marlin in his history of the New York Conservative Party. When Buckley’s appeal to voters who might be described as street-corner conservatives pushed him up to 18 percent in the polls, the Lindsay team began planting concocted stories with the pliant press about how Lindsay’s campaign offices in Queens were under attack from racist storm troopers. Buckley’s campaign, argued the Lindsay operation with a straight face, was nothing less than the second coming of Nazism.

It’s here that Buckley’s intuitively antidemocratic biases, and at times shoot-from-the-lip provocations, left him politically vulnerable. A critic of the interest-group politics of the welfare state and what he saw as the excesses of democracy, willing to talk frankly about the development of what would a decade later be called a black underclass, Buckley made himself into an easy target for those caught up in the admirably integrationist fervor of the civil rights era. His skewering of liberals—for ignoring black illegitimacy rates, the debilitating effects of widespread welfare, and the depredations of the high-living black hustler-congressman Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem—came at a high price. Long on cogent insights, he seemed short, as my father commented at the time, on rachmunis (the Yiddish word for empathy and mercy) for people so long mistreated. Like Barry Goldwater in his 1964 presidential campaign, Buckley generally refused to make the morally essential gestures required of a public figure. If he had, his later intellectual victory would have been less complete, but his short-term impact would have been greater. The irony was that, labeled a racist, he ran a self-described “campaign of ideas”—declining to make ethnic and racial appeals and even turning down a fervent invitation to march in the anti-Communist Pulaski Day parade.

Buckley finished with 13 percent of the vote. He had, notes Lindsay biographer Vin Cannato, “lost the election but won the campaign.”

Free men are aware that winning the elections matters.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 4, 2008 6:42 AM

That is one thing I can never quite understand about some people. They hold certain ideals and they fight for them, but they won't compromise enough to get the political power necessary to enact their ideals. Its as if they enjoy impotency and want to keep their rage.

Very strange indeed.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 4, 2008 8:06 AM

WFB was ultimately just a libertarian, which always boils down to the self uber alles.

Posted by: oj at March 4, 2008 11:52 AM

It's easy, Mikey, it's Vanity. If you don't bend to get elected, you can stay "pure". And for many of course, there is the terror that their ideas are not as sound as they think. Better to keep them a dream, then to soil them......

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at March 4, 2008 12:08 PM

The difference between ideological purity and intellectual integrity is fairly easy to determine. When individuals quietly stand by, and up for, their principles, that's intellectual integrity. As practiced by WFB (though not, perhaps, "quietly").

Free men are aware that winning the elections matters.

True...but you won't keep winning them if you're caught being faithless to your most prominently espoused principles (see Congress, Republican).

...but they won't compromise enough to get the political power necessary to enact their ideals.

How much compromise is enough, mikey? Having taken a stand against the ethnicization of politics, for instance, the moment you compromise with its various aspects (e.g. march in the Pulaski parade) your opponents will attack you for the hypocrisy. And the fact that they are correct will leave you with no defense.

WFB knew he was not going to win the election. Based on personal experience of the reaction to God and Man at Yale, he knew how low his opponents could sink. And sink they did. But once it finally began to percolate through the electoral mind (well after the election, granted) how dim you had to be to believe "WFB=Nazi," or how vicious, hateful and desperate to falsely impute it, Lindsayite Republicanism was doomed. This even led some working class Dems to examine the way their own party viewed their own principles, which in turn led them to jump ship.

Winning elections does matter -- but winning the intellectual victory was essential, and WFB's many labors were an essential part of that victory.

And, oh, yeah: [Respondent gleefully rolls on floor covered in broken glass, laughing at the concept of WFB fearing that his ideas were not as sound at he thought!!!!!!!]

Posted by: porkopolitan at March 4, 2008 2:29 PM

To the contrary, the electorally successful conservatives had paid little fealty to the principles--Ike, Reagan,
Newt, W.

Posted by: oj at March 4, 2008 7:51 PM


Possibly, but they ride the wave of ideas generally. Think of Buckley as a kind of New York Goldwater. Twenty years later you get Reagan and Giuliani.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 6, 2008 4:31 AM


That's silly -- he was a devout Catholic, abhorred abortion, and called for a compulsory national service obligation. On a different tack, he also seriously advocated placing a tattoo on the rear ends of homosexuals with AIDS so as to warn potential sex partners (I once read him defending the idea in an interview: He did not seem to be kidding).

As much as you might not want to hear it, his positions were similar to yours: He was not a libertarian but certainly favored freedom over security.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 6, 2008 5:00 AM

porko, I must disagree that marching in a parade is the same as voting for (or against) a candidate because of his or her ethnicity, skin color, gender, sexual preference or taste in music.

Posted by: erp at March 6, 2008 8:57 AM

Until we'd won the Cold War and actual social conservatives took over the party, then he went wet.

Posted by: oj at March 6, 2008 9:22 AM


Yeah, how? He has kept to all those positions I mentioned earlier. Read his book Nearer My God for a post-Cold War analysis of his orthodox Catholicism, written quite late in his life. It's the kind of book you'll write someday when you convert to Catholicism.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 7, 2008 6:42 AM

When you oppose the party that wants to implement policies you oppose the policies.

Posted by: oj at March 7, 2008 8:04 AM


Except he didn't oppose the party, either.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 7, 2008 8:49 AM

His magazine is a bastion of Zeus-worshipping and he became a Bush critic, both for the same reason.

Posted by: oj at March 7, 2008 11:12 AM


Zeus-worshipping? I don't think so. I can't speak for Odin and Osiris, however.

Honestly, the magazine itself (as opposed to some of the nuttier types on NRO -- i.e. Derbyshire, mostly relegated to the back page of the print version) has always been socially conservative. This is pretty clear if you read it regularly.

The most anybody has ever gotten out of Buckley was that, if he was privy to what America knows now, he might have thought twice about going into Iraq. Not exactly a vote of no-confidence. It's largely a Burkean judgment about establishing a new social order in a country largely alien to democracy. I guarantee you Russell Kirk would have had similar thoughts (remember that he opposed the first Iraq War). I do not agree -- at least in this context -- but it's at least a valid argument, and a typically conservative one.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 8, 2008 2:58 AM

There's a reason they support Mitt/Rudy and oppose Huck/McCain.

Posted by: oj at March 8, 2008 6:36 AM


Because they're gullible enough to believe that a pro-abortion former Massachusetts governor has become kosher in the last two years. Silly, but it's the underlying premise of their rationalizations.

They're also searching for an alternative to McCain because of CFR and his media toadying -- an understandable impulse.

NR criticizes Giuliani repeatedly in their pages for his social liberalism and Ponnuru ripped him to pieces in a recent article.

They've criticized Huck for some of the oddball stuff he's done on the campaign trail, his tax increases while governor of Arkansas, his opposition to school vouchers, etc.

The magazine publishes pro-life articles and book reviews all the time, and Robert P. George and Michael Novak make frequent appearances. If they're a bunch of pro-choicers they're doing a great job of hiding it.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 8, 2008 9:10 AM

They aren't rationalizing, they think he's kidding.

I take your point about WFB though. It's more the empire he left behind than him personally. My apologies to you and his memory.

Posted by: oj at March 8, 2008 11:41 AM


No need to apologize for being wrong -- I'm wrong four times a day before lunch -- but I still don't get your point about the magazine itself. They claim to be anti-abortion, they publish pro-life articles and book reviews, etc. They've hammered the Supreme Court for striking down state laws against homosexuality. Other than Jeffrey Hart, I can't think of a single person they've ever published (in the print version) who called for legalized abortion in an article, and even Hart's argument was more in the "It's here to stay, unfortunately" vein.

They run George and Novak and Ponnuru and the rest of the crew. Their editorial on the 25th anniversary of Roe is the greatest piece of condemnatory writing on the subject that I've ever read. Basically, your comments in this vein indicate that you don't read the magazine.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 8, 2008 6:22 PM

Their support for the most liberal candidate on social issues in GOP primaries and their opposition to immigration flow from the same source, the urbanite dislike for racial minorities.

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2008 9:10 AM


Nope, only Derbyshire and possibly Krikorian fall into that category. The rest of them think Romney is the most conservative candidate, for reasons I outlined above (also, they've convinced themselves that he had to tack leftward to win in Massachusetts).

Even a cynic doesn't have to think that a socially conservative magazine is just taking those positions to string the rest of us rubes along.

Obviously some of the conservative opposition to illegal immigration is racial, but a lot of it is grounded in the normal conservative anger at people not being punished for lawbreaking. I normally go along with that but I make significant exceptions for illegal immigrants, in the same sense in which I sympathize with a guy who steals a loaf of breaf to feed his starving family. I figure we'll make room for them somewhere.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 10, 2008 7:22 PM

No, I think people know exactly why the Right supports Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at March 10, 2008 8:32 PM