Nearly half-a-century after he made history by winning a U.S. Senate seat from New York as the candidate of the Conservative Party, James L. Buckley remains a never-forgotten hero to conservatives nationwide.
He is 96 and might be one of the few surviving "greats" of postwar conservatism – a pantheon that includes his late brother William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review, as well as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
Defeated in his 1976 Senate race by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Buckley returned to Washington four years later when Ronald Reagan became president. Following stints in two high-ranking positions in the U.S. State Department, including as Undersecretary of State, he was appointed in 1985 to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Asked how the president's agenda holds up aside the more traditional conservatism of Goldwater, Reagan, and himself, Buckley replied without hesitation: "I never thought of Trump as a conservative. I just thought of him as someone out there, looking for opportunities."
Trump's foreign policy, he said, "scares me."
Buckley cites Trump's proposals to slap tariffs on foreign goods.
"But you have the domestic area, which I'm extremely happy about," he said.
"You have the judicial appointments, which have been superb. My guess is he lucked into that by getting the list from the Federalist Society."
He is high on the president's domestic policies.
"I very much approved of his tax package, the corporate end of it," he said, adding, "Not necessarily the personal income tax part of it. We need the revenue."
As Senator, Buckley championed turning back to the states authority not constitutionally delegated to the federal government. Not surprisingly, he likes Trump's rolling back of federal regulations.
"But I am concerned about executive orders and issuing proclamations of sorts," Buckley said. "President Obama set a pattern of doing this. Having first declared he had no constitutional authority to do this, Trump now does it."
As for the Republican Party and its condition, Buckley says he is perplexed.
"You've asked me a question I can't answer," he explains.
"When Trump came in, the whole [Republican Party] system went up in the air. I don't know where it is today."
Any interview with Buckley inevitably works its way around to his surprise election to the Senate in 1970.
Angered by Nelson Rockefeller's appointment of liberal Republican Charles Goodell to the Senate seat of the late Robert Kennedy, Empire State GOP activists defected in droves to Buckley.
A U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, attorney, and businessman, brother of Bill Buckley and a candidate of the new Conservative Party, he took the state by storm.
Buckley spoke up for law and order and smaller government. And they identified with his slogan: "Isn't it time we had a senator?"
Conservatives around the country sent money to the "outsider" candidate.
John Wayne even cut a commercial saying "if I lived in New York, you can be sure I'd vote for Jim Buckley."
In one of the most closely watched campaigns anywhere in 1970, Buckley won with 39 percent, with former Rep. Richard Ottinger, D-N.Y., 37 percent, and Goodell 24 percent.
"I could not have launched my campaign under the present rules," observed Buckley, voicing distaste for the present federal regulations on reporting campaign donations.
Buckley's good nature and graciousness seemed tailor-made for a Senate which, as he put it, "oozed civility."
"We could talk to one another and respect one another," he recalled.
Buckley and wife Anne often dined with colleagues and their wives from the opposite side.
"It's become a way of politicizing and appealing to certain groups," Buckley said of the highly partisan environment in Washington.
"Now, the only thing you see on the Senate floor, are people making speeches to a national audience and not to their colleagues. And their colleagues aren't even around to listen."
Part of the problem, he believes, is Congress has growing increasingly focused on "grants-in-aids programs which have nothing to do with federal responsibilities. But it's the easiest way to generate hometown headlines."
"I would pull the cameras out today," he told me.
Buckley was in the Senate in 1973 when Roe v. Wade effectively gutted state limitations on abortion. The New Yorker became one of the earliest voices for the right to life movement, and along with the late Maryland Republican Rep. Larry Hogan (father of Maryland's current governor), he became one of the earliest sponsors of federal anti-abortion legislation.
"Today, technology is helping to increase popular support of restrictions on abortion," he said.
"You have a very, very strong base for state laws that say the moment the fetus can feel pain, don't do it," he said. "I would prefer it to say it never happen, but I think there is a strong popular movement for strict limitations on abortion."
Buckley's wife Anne died in 2011, a devastating development for the former senator.
Today he is patriarch of a family with six children, eight grandchildren, and his first great-grandchild due in June.
"We all married late, so I'm becoming a great-grandfather 20 years after most of my friends did," he said with a smile.
While most of Jim Buckley's contemporaries are gone, "the Senator," as his friends still call him, remains a champion of America.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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