When William F. Buckley Jr. passed this past February, he was remembered and revered for his journalism, best-selling novels, and his long-running PBS TV show “Firing Line.”
He was the father of modern conservatism. But most commentators overlooked a seminal event for Buckley and the conservative movement, his 1965 campaign for his New York’s mayoralty.
Buckley not only fired up conservatives in New York (his slogan, “Do you have the guts to listen?” our answer was a resounding, “Yes!”), he discovered multitudes of disaffected Democats who were small “c” social conservatives. Later, this group, dubbed the “Reagan Democrats,” would play a pivotal role in Reagan’s rise to the presidency.
The seeds of Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 victories were clearly planted by a young Bill Buckey when he ran as the candidate of the three-year-old Conservative Party in a three-way race against Republican-liberal John V. Lindsay and Democrat Abraham Beame.
I had my first brush with politics as one of the teenage “Street-Corner Conservatives” who handed out Buckley fliers at subway stations, bus stops, and outside churches. I even tasted my first brush with street politics when I was hassled at the corner of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens by Sid Davidoff (who later served as Lindsay’s deputy mayor and went onto become the city’s leading lobbyists) for distributing Buckley literature at a Lindsay rally.
The Buckley campaign was incredibly exciting. And thanks to a city-wide newspaper strike, the television debates, where Buckley could excel, became the prime media forum.
It’s fair to say that the erudite Buckley trounced his opponents in the numerous debates.
Lindsay, with his chiseled good looks and sonorous voice, may have sounded great when he was fully scripted, but in the debate format, which emphasized spontaneous wit and a real command of facts, he came across as dull-witted. The 4-foot-11 accountant, Abe Beame, looked and sounded like an IRS agent discussing an income-tax audit.
Buckley had style but he also had substance: He was able to articulate views that professional politicians shunned fearing they might upset the racial, religious, or ethnic balance of their support.
Bill Buckley’s positions in the campaign hit a nerve with the neighborhood blue-collar, ethnic and usually Democratic voters, who felt themselves the victims of high taxes, rising crime, and failing schools.
In Buckley, they found more than a spokesman. They found a hero. And the polls began to reflect his popularity.
The first Herald Tribune poll published on Oct. 7 had Beame at 45.6 percent, Lindsay at 35.6 percent, and Buckley at 10.2 percent, with 8.6 percent undecided.
Mike Long, who was then chairman of Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Conservative Club (and would later become state chairman of the Conservative Party), remembered how Buckley electrified the conservative base. New clubs began to spring up all over Brooklyn and thousands volunteered to give out literature.
At a rally held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Buckley spoke to a crowd that overflowed into the street. Long, who was sitting in the audience that night, recalls how the crowd went wild at the end of the rally when Buckley said, “Now back to the wars.”
“Applause, cheering, and howls went on for minutes,” Long says. “The thousands who left the Academy of Music were so wound up they were ready to go conquer the world.”
On election night, Buckley received 341,226 votes, 13.4 percent of the total. While Lindsay won the election with a plurality (45.3 percent) there was plenty of good news for Buckley supporters. For the first time, the Conservative Party had outpolled the Liberal Party in the City of New York. In the ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx that had long identified with the Democratic Party, Buckley racked up 25 percent of the German vote, 26 percent of Eastern Europeans, 22 percent of the Irish and 17 percent of the Italians.
The liberal Manhattan political establishment was shocked by Buckley’s popularity in the outer boroughs. In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Buckley received 36.5 percent of the vote. In Ridgewood, Queens, 38 percent; Hollis, Queens, 38 percent; Fox Hills-Tottenville, Staten Island, 30 percent and Parkchester, Bronx, 29 percent.
Bill Buckley’s mayoral candidacy refuted the prevailing view in liberal circles that the conservative movement consisted of nothing more than a bunch of crackpots. He proved that the Conservative Party mattered in the electoral politics of the most left-wing city in the nation and helped regain respectability for the conservative movement nationwide.
Though Buckley lost the race (he never imagined he would win), he laid the groundwork for the 1970 election of his brother James, on the Conservative Party Line, to the U.S. Senate seat once held by Robert F. Kennedy.
He not only galvanized the neighborhood ethnic voters who provided Reagan’s Empire State margins of victory in 1980 and 1984, he proved Reagan win Democratic votes in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
For his efforts — his 1965 race one of the many highlights of an extraordinary life — Buckley became the the political godfather to a generation of conservatives in New York and across the nation. I was proud to be one of them.
Speaking at the National Review 10th Anniversary dinner just weeks after the ’65 election, Barry Goldwater best described Buckley’s mayoral bid: “Running as a Conservative in New York City must be an interesting experience. You’re not really a candidate. You are a political Kamikaze . . . But Bill Buckley ran a great race. I understand at one point, Bobby Kennedy was so worried, he put Staten Island in his wife’s name.”
Buckley, he said, was the “man who lost the election but won the campaign.” Indeed he did. William F. Buckley Jr. — requiescat in pace.
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George J. Marlin is the author of "Fighting the Good Fight: A History of the New York Conservative Party." In 1993 he ran for mayor as the Conservative Party candidate. His candidacy was endorsed by William F. Buckley.
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