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William F. Buckley Jr., Mayoral Candidate, on Political Rhetoric and Theater,1965

Number 55

Wednesday, August 08, 2012 - 01:00 PM

WNYC

Better known for his punditry, here mayoral candidate William F. Buckley Jr. complains about delivering stump speeches "without boring the voter, which is bad enough, but without boring yourself, which is worse." 

Fortunately, Buckley manages to bore no one at this Overseas Press Club conference. First he speaks of "a sort of special surrealism" he has discovered on the campaign trail, in which one's goal is primarily to say nothing, though "it does help if one can conjure up a rhetoric that seems to have some sort of ontological significance." This is why, he goes on to explain, he answered Sen. Jacob K. Javits' charge that he is "an assassin" in three different ways. During the question period he endorses the concept of a "white backlash" if it means repudiating the views of such black  leaders as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Bayard Rustin. His aim, he explains, in running on the newly formed Conservative Party ticket, is to pull the Republican back to the right, just as the Liberal Party pulled the Democratic Party to the left. His candidacy is, however, not a stunt. "I don't propose to turn politics into a japery."

As for why he is attacking John Lindsay more than Abe Beame, he calls Beame "a routine catastrophe" whereas Lindsay is a "poseur…not a true Republican." Rather than engage in argument, all Lindsay does, Buckley claims, is go "boulevarding around eating pizza and blintzes." Buckley's candor and wit is very much in evidence here, as well as his eccentric vocabulary, self-parody, and highbrow frame of reference. In the course of the hour he manages to work in anecdotes involving G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Alfred North Whitehead, Lord Salisbury, and Pericles.

Buckley was born in 1925. Heir to an oil fortune, he was raised in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege complete with nursemaids, governesses, and a trilingual education. After his military service, he was employed briefly by the CIA before attending Yale. Upon graduation, he published God and Man at Yale (1951), criticizing his alma mater for abandoning its Christian mission in favor of a more agnostic, "humanist" agenda. The book put Buckley in a spotlight that  was to follow him for the rest of his life. Establishing the conservative magazine The National Review in 1955, Buckley both defined and codified the rising conservative tide that led to Barry Goldwater's capturing the Republican nomination for president in 1964. Buckley was also a widely read journalist. His column "On the Right," which started in 1962, appeared, at the height of its popularity, in 320 newspapers. During this time Buckley seemed to be everywhere and in every medium, with his television show "Firing Line," which started in 1966, gaining him an ever wider audience. The key to his success, The New York Times noted,

…was making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal post-World War II America. He mobilized the young enthusiasts who helped nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964 and saw his dreams fulfilled when Reagan and the Bushes captured the Oval Office.

The strengths and pitfalls of this approach were clearly in evidence during the mayoral campaign caught in this press club appearance. While carefully distancing himself from the more overtly violent and racist groups on the right, Buckley's positions (anti-busing, seeming to sneer at anything "ethnic") ended up catering to just such a constituency. As Buckley's biographer Sam Tanenhaus put it:

To campaign in New York as an authentic conservative required, to some extent, redefining what modern conservatism meant — or what it might mean. At the very least, it required tuning Goldwater’s message to a distinctly urban key. Buckley was confident that there were conservatives in New York. And he would be proved right. He was also confident he knew who they were. There he turned out, like so many others, to be wrong.

In the end, Buckley did better than expected, getting 13 percent of the vote. Ironically, he is credited with helping Lindsay, whom he seems to have held in far deeper contempt than Beame, win a narrow victory by tapping into the deep and sometimes ugly resentments festering in the city.

The same dichotomy can be seen in other aspects of Buckley's career. The cultured Ivy League debater calling Gore Vidal "a queer" on national TV; the devout Christian suggesting that people with AIDS should have some warning sign of their disease tattooed on their buttocks. An element of showmanship, of needing to be outrageous to retain the public's attention, was, one senses, part of Buckley's makeup as well. 

In addition to being a Conservative thinker and promoter, Buckley wrote a number of well-received spy novels, beginning with Saving the Queen (1976). In contrast to the tortured ambiguities favored by such other practitioners of the genre like John Le Carré, Buckley's protagonist,  Blackford Oakes, is unhesitatingly portrayed as a hero and his cause always just. Buckley wrote 10 books featuring Oakes, as well as other novels, memoirs, journals, and an autobiography.

Toward the end of his life, Buckley surprised many by opposing President George W. Bush's prosecution of the Iraq war. He told CBS news:

If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we've experienced, it would be expected that he would retire or resign.

It was this unexpected stance and others like it that marked Buckley off from more "knee-jerk" commentators of both the left and right. As Chris Weinkopf wrote in salon.com:

He is opposed to gun control, but cannot fathom the NRA’s opposition to banning so-called assault rifles. He supports drug legalization, but wants distribution managed and regulated by the federal government. Such positions may be, as Eric Alterman says, “far divorced from the mainstream,” but they are tempered, and not dogmatic — which may be why even his most severe critics find him unthreatening.

William F. Buckley died in 2008 at the age of 82.

 

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

 

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