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William F. Buckley’s Unmaking of a Mayor
. . . and the making of a national coalition
3 March 2008

William F. Buckley’s 1965 New York mayoral campaign is perhaps best remembered for a memorable quip: asked what he would do if he won, the Conservative Party candidate responded with a bemused smile, “Demand a recount.” Buckley, a man of Tory manners and radical principles, ran as an intellectual provocateur. But his campaign against Democrat Abe Beame and the eventual winner, then-Republican John Lindsay, was far more than an historical footnote. The issues it raised and the constituencies it energized made it a harbinger of the ensuing era of Republican presidential dominance.

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.”

The book provided a highbrow case for linking the simultaneous growths of crime and welfare, which were beginning to make parts of the city nearly uninhabitable. But its personal reflections were at least as interesting. Buckley entered the campaign an elitist critic of the welfare state and dubious about democracy. He left it having discovered that his arguments were most cordially received among working-class Catholic voters—the forebears of the Reagan Democrats.

Albert Jay Nock—the former World War I–era philo-Bolshevik bohemian-turned-Nietzschean anarcho-elitist and anti-Semite—was a friend of Buckley’s father. Nock’s 1943 book Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, an elegant (and racist) denunciation of modern man, was an enormous influence on the young William, who first read it in high school. Nock wrote, in an argument that the New Left would later pick up, that only the “saving remnant,” an elite not polluted by mass society, could save Western culture from total collapse. There were some at Buckley’s magazine, National Review, who took a more populist view of democracy. But in 1962, explains Buckley biographer John Judis, the future mayoral candidate decided to follow up his own criticism of the “liberals’ fetishistic commitment to democracy,” as evidenced by their support for black voting rights, by writing a book tentatively titled The Revolt Against the Masses. The title was borrowed from Ortega y Gasset’s 1930 book of the same name, and the book was to be a blast against the commercialization of culture that went hand in hand, as Nock and Buckley saw it, with the statism of Stalinism, fascism, and the New Deal. The famously prolific Buckley never wrote the book, however, because during the 1965 campaign there was a revolt against the masses—but much to his surprise, it was directed by upper-middle-class liberal reformers against working-class Democrats, whose fears about crime and the impact of welfare were dismissed as merely racist.

In 1964, John Lindsay, a rising star in American politics and like Buckley a Yale man, won reelection to Congress from what was then called the Silk Stocking District (on Manhattan’s Upper East Side). Lindsay—whose college senior thesis on the greatness of Oliver Cromwell, the conqueror of Ireland, testified to his anti-Irish sentiments—saw himself as the city’s savior. His campaign slogan was “John V. Lindsay, the District’s Pride and the Nation’s Hope.” In Congress, Lindsay played a key role in passing the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act; asked by the press how the legislation won majority support, he replied, “I passed the Civil Rights Act with the help of the Fourth Estate.” Lindsay, a Republican whose politics, said Buckley, “put him left of the center of the Democratic Party,” was also the primary author of the Kerner Commission Report, whose investigation of the mid-1960s’ urban race riots concluded that white racism virtually alone was responsible for the ills of the African-American community. Lindsay, Obama-like, saw himself not so much as a bipartisan figure as someone whose nobility and good intentions elevated him above the plain of partisanship.

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.” But he never resolved the tension between his Tory hauteur and his white working-class support. The election limned the future shape of American politics. Dismayed by the strong support for Lindsay among wealthy Republicans, Buckley mocked their Upper East Side neighborhood as the “densest national concentration of vegetarians, pacifists, hermaphrodites, junkies, Communists, Randites, clam-juice-and-betel-nut eaters.” The Democrats (and Lindsay would become a Democrat) increasingly became a top/bottom party, a coalition of the upper middle class and African-Americans, while blue-collar workers became a key constituency in the GOP. Should the presidential candidates in November be Barack Obama and John McCain, we can expect that pattern to intensify.

Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal and a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.

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