Fifty years ago this week, I was a teenager handing out flyers on street corners in Brooklyn and Queens for William F. Buckley Jr., the mayoral candidate of the New York Conservative Party.
The candidacy of the National Review founder not only proved the Conservative Party mattered in the most left-wing city in America, but it also helped regain respectability for the conservative movement one year after the Goldwater debacle.
Nearly as important, Buckley proved that politics could be fun. As the liberal columnist Murray Kempton wrote: “The process which consumes every other man who enters it has only refined Mr. Buckley.”
When Buckley announced his candidacy on June 24, 1965, he explained why he was running: “I am a Republican . . . I seek the honorable designation of the Conservative Party, because the Republican designation is not, in N.Y, available nowadays to anyone in the mainstream of Republican opinion. As witness the behavior of the Republican Party’s candidate John Lindsay, who spends his days . . . stressing his acceptability to the leftward most party in N.Y., the Liberal Party.”
The biggest break Buckley had in the race was the three-week newspaper strike that commenced just as the campaign was beginning. This meant that television debates, where Buckley could excel, became the prime media forum in the campaign.
Buckley trounced his opponents in the numerous debates. Lindsay, the darling of the GOP’s left wing, with his chiseled good looks and sonorous voice, may have sounded great when he was scripted, but in the debate format, which emphasized spontaneous wit and a ready command of facts, he came across as dull-witted.
The four-foot-eleven accountant, Democrat Abe Beame, looked and sounded like an IRS agent discussing an income-tax audit.
Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote that “Buckley’s roguish wit and flashy idiom are made for television . . . As a result, New York’s liberal voters are being exposed to larger doses of right-wing ideology than they’ve ever had before from a mayoralty candidate.”
Buckley made sure his campaign issued serious analysis of issues and policy proposals about each of New York's major problems.
He argued that if New Yorkers continued to hallucinate on liberal bromides, the City would be ravaged by crime, its economic base would be destroyed, and it would become fiscally insolvent.
Buckley was right on all counts; ten years later Lindsay’s “Fun City” was declared “Fear City,” businesses were fleeing and the City defaulted on its debt.
Buckley was able to articulate views that professional politicians dared not express because those opinions might upset the racial, religious, or ethnic balance of their support.
His positions in the campaign hit a nerve with neighborhood blue-collar ethnics, 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.
Now the truth is, Buckley got into the mayoral campaign almost capriciously; hence his pronouncement he would “demand a recount” if elected.
But by the time the race went into the stretch, Buckley had become a full-time dynamo of a candidate. Looking back, his brother Jim said: “Bill did go into this thing as a lark. But I think any sense of it being a lark rapidly disappeared.”
By the end of the campaign thousands of volunteers — particularly young ones — flocked to Buckley campaign storefronts throughout the city.
At an election eve rally, Buckley congratulated supporters on the battle they were waging: “I do honestly feel a special admiration for you . . . I am a minority candidate, and I say: you may be a minority, but the whole world hangs on you. You are the strength of our traditions. I am very proud of you, and I want to identify myself with you, now and for all time.”
On Election Day, November 3, 1965, Buckley had a dramatic impact on the election having received 341,226 votes, 13.4 percent of the total.
While many were disappointed that Lindsay was not stopped, Buckley did extremely well in the outer-borough Catholic neighborhoods, receiving about 25 percent of the vote in those precincts. Fifteen years later, these same voters became known as Reagan Democrats.
The strength and stature of the conservative movement and the Conservative Party were enhanced by Buckley’s 1965 performance.
At National Review’s tenth anniversary dinner two weeks after the election, Barry Goldwater told those gathered that “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.”
Goldwater summed up Buckley’s contribution this way: Buckley was, he said, the “man who lost the election but won the campaign.”
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of N.Y. and N.J., is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact." He also is a columnist for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. Read more reports from George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.
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