October 8, 2020


Only Half in Fun: William F. Buckley's NYC Mayoral Campaign, 50 Years Later (Thomas E. Lynch, October 19, 2015, Intercollegiate Review)

The campaign began with a promise of low effort and high art. Buckley, who had warned the Conservative Party that the race would not disrupt his already crowded schedule, had privately committed no more than a day a week to the effort. To the assembled press, he noted that he expected to campaign when he had time.

From the first press conference, it was clear that he would be running on his own terms. The candidate read his statement of principles in a tone Murray Kempton described as that of "an Edwardian resident commissioner reading aloud the 39 articles of the Anglican establishment to a conscript assemblage of Zulus."(8)

Buckley was as committed to enjoying himself as he was to fulfilling his objectives:

Press:  Do you want to be mayor, sir?
Buckley:  I have never considered it. . . .
Press:  How many votes do you expect to get, conservatively speaking?
Buckley:  Conservatively speaking, one.(9)

Within days of launching the campaign, Buckley would make his most lasting contribution to American campaign lore by telling the press that if he were elected, his first action would be to "demand a recount."(10)

Joking aside, Buckley had at his disposal one powerful advantage, namely that he "did not expect to win the election, and so could afford to violate the taboos."(11) From the start, his campaign sought to undermine the basic vocabulary of New York City politics: ethnic-group and other bloc voting.

For most of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party's dominance was rooted in the hundred or so local ethnic clubs--Irish, Italian, Jewish, black, Puerto Rican--that enfranchised recent immigrants and traded votes for municipal jobs and petty graft. By the early 1960s, reform movement Democrats--often from the left wing of the party--had taken over many of the old clubs. But the habits of political affiliation were ingrained in the political culture; ethnic-bloc voting was reality in New York City political life.

Buckley launched a frontal attack on these patterns. Bloc voting of all kinds, he argued, was the enemy of good governance. There was "marginal disutility" involved in appealing to voting blocs; the politician's desire to satisfy the needs of the largest and most powerful blocs ultimately undermines the welfare of the individual members of those blocs. The taxi driver might enjoy the enforced oligopoly that government provides, but political concessions to other blocs result in higher taxes, greater congestion, weaker schools, and hundreds of problems that ultimately outweigh the value of the oligopoly.

The city's problems, Buckley claimed, were rooted in maladministration and the capitulation to special interests. Much of the latter could be resolved if politicians engaged voters as individuals, "depriving the voting blocs of their corporate advantages" and "liberat[ing] individual members of those voting blocs."(12) Buckley committed to this idealistic form of campaigning: "I will not go to Jewish centers and eat blintzes," he declaimed, "nor will I go to Italian centers and pretend to speak Italian."(13)

THROUGH the summer, Buckley's campaign barely qualified as back-page news. The leading local political story was the September Democratic Party primary, in which City Comptroller Abraham Beame emerged the victor. Other stories occupied the city's attention: the drought and the New York World's Fair continued through the summer, and many working-class Catholics were buying televisions so they could witness the pope's first visit to New York (and America) in early October.

Buckley's program was scarcely registering with voters until, on September 17, the campaign caught a huge break: the Newspaper Guild called a general strike. The city newspapers, largely in the thrall of the Lindsay campaign, would not publish for twenty-three days. The mayoralty campaign now would be waged on television: in four televised forums, Buckley's wit, manners, and mercilessly adept debating style transformed him into the central figure in this campaign. "Love him or hate him, TV fans found it difficult to turn off a master political showman," wrote one scribe,(14) while famed campaign chronicler Theodore White deemed Buckley a "star" who would be "Oscar Wilde's favorite candidate for anything."(15)

The effect in the field was even more surprising, especially to those inside the campaign. Television was allowing Buckley's seemingly academic attack on voting blocs to gain traction not among the intellectual or business class but with the ethnic voters themselves. The largely Catholic ethnic vote--increasingly alienated from both the old and the new reformist clubs--was warming to Buckley's conservative message of low taxes, individual accountability, and law and order.

"I can tell you that it surprised me," campaign aide Neal Freeman recalled. "I suppose that I was expecting our supporters to be National Review types--car dealers, academic moles, literate dentists. . . . As soon as we hired halls, though, we learned that [Buckley] was speaking for the people who made the city go--corner-store owners, cops, schoolteachers, first-home owners, firemen, coping parents."(16)

The polls showed Buckley rising to 16 percent of the vote--one poll put him at 20 percent--mostly with support from largely disaffected and strongly Catholic voters. Any sense of the campaign's being a "lark" quickly disappeared, and Buckley, instead of limiting his political activity to a day a week, began to campaign every day.

One of the best aspects of the book is WFB's surprise with--and annoyance at--himself as he begins to take his own candidacy seriously even though he has far too little political experience to campaign effectively.    

The Unmaking of a Mayor : The following is the prologue from William F. Buckley's now-classic memoir of his campaign for mayor of New York City, The Unmaking of a Mayor, just reissued in a fiftieth-anniversary "deluxe edition."  (William F. Buckley, October 21, 2015, Intercollegiate Review)

Q. Why haven't you availed yourself of the two-party system in New York and fought your fight with John Lindsay in the primaries?
A. Because if I had entered the Republican primary and lost to John Lindsay I'd have felt obliged to support him in the election. Party loyalty demands that sort of thing. Since I could not in good conscience have endorsed Mr. Lindsay, I could not in good conscience have accepted the implicit discipline of a Primary contest. To avoid this dilemma, I am running as a Republican but on the Conservative ticket, whose platform is wholly congruent with the Republican National Platform of 1964.

Q. If the Republican Party in New York City is oriented toward Democratic principles, then isn't that because New York Republicans wish it to be so, and don't New York Republicans have the right to shape the character of their own Party?
A. (1) John Lindsay got 135,000 votes in New York in 1964, having repudiated the national candidacy of Barry Goldwater. (2) Barry Goldwater, in 1964, got 800,000 votes in New York City. Granted that Lindsay ran only in a single Congressional District. But grant, also, that he won a lot of Democratic votes. If there are 800,000 people in New York City willing to vote for Barry Goldwater, you have to assume that the Republican Party, understood as a party reflecting an alternative view of government to that of the Democratic Party, isn't dead in New York. The question, then, is whether the Republican Party should have tried, by evangelizing the Republican faith, to double that 800,000 votes, sufficient to win an election, or do as John Lindsay is doing, which is to unsex the Republican Party and flit off with the Democratic majority--which effort would ultimately convince the voters that the Republican Party, as commonly understood, offers no genuine alternative.

Q. Isn't John Lindsay engaged in revitalizing the Republican Party?
A. No, he is engaged in devitalizing the Republican Party. A party thrives on its distinctiveness. John Lindsay's decision, made years ago, to bestow himself upon the nation as a Republican rather than as a Democrat was clearly based on personal convenience rather than on a respect for the two-party system, let alone a respect for the Republican alternative. The two-party system, if it is meaningful, presupposes an adversary relationship between the parties. John Lindsay's voting record, and his general political pronouncements, put him left of the center of the Democratic Party. As such he is an embarrassment to the two-party system.

Q. Does the Conservative Party's position in New York bear on the struggle for power within the Republican National Committee?
A. It appears to me obvious that it does. Mr. Bliss, understandably hungry for any victory by anyone who, off the record, concedes a formal affiliation with the Republican Party, has shown enthusiasm for Mr. Lindsay's campaign. That enthusiasm is not shared by an important wing of the Party, probably the dominant wing of the Party, some of whose spokesmen have directly encouraged me to run for office and thereby uphold nationally authorized Republican principles.

Q. Granted John Lindsay is running for Mayor of New York alongside a Democrat and a Liberal. He has said that the problems of New York require a fusion approach. What do you think of that?
A. It is a relief when John Lindsay rises from banality, if only to arrive at fatuity. 

[originally posted 10/23/15]
Posted by at October 8, 2020 9:20 AM