In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen, a New York –actually Upper West Side–lover if there ever was one, complained of how the image of New York to the rest of the country was that of a “homosexual, left wing, communist” city. He followed up with, “even I live here and I sometimes think that.” And homosexuality aside, the far Left did dominate the city. When I lived there, I noticed that the political spectrum veered so far to the Left that my professors considered uber-Democrat and New Deal champion Arthur Schlesinger to be a “conservative.”
To argue that these features were a holdover from the late Sixties’ generation slights just how the city has always been this way, and hence has never been hospitable to a true conservative. To run as one, even fifty years ago, took courage, or at least a thick skin, as such a candidacy guaranteed catcalls, boos – even the possibility of violence – in addition to an overwhelming loss.
Enter William F. Buckley, who was not in doubt that all of the above would happen (in response to a reporter who asked what the National Review editor would do if he won, Buckley famously replied “Demand a recount”) in his 1965 campaign for mayor. Given that Goldwater, whom he supported (but knew would lose the Presidential campaign against Lyndon Johnson, which he declared in a speech two weeks before the election) had just gone down in flames, left no doubt that the same would happen, perhaps even more so, to Buckley.
What then was his purpose? In point of fact, he believed that his kamikaze-like effort would eventually weaken liberalism and make possible the eventual election of a conservative President (in this he was truly prophetic when fifteen years later, Ronald Reagan won the Presidency).
Today everyone runs as a maverick, even those like Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and John McCain, who declare themselves outsiders while they reside inside the beltway and cut deals with the opposition. But Buckley truly was one; his resume–conservative journalist, founder of National Review–was not that of a professional politician. And unlike the self-styled mavericks of today, he didn’t tailor his message for each particular borough:
“I will not go to Irish centers and go dancing,”… “I will not go to Jewish centers and eat blintzes, nor will I go to Italian centers and pretend to speak Italian.”
Instead, each audience got the same unpopular message to solve the city’s problems. Against the crime issue, he advocated either locking up teenage criminals or making their parents “legally responsible for them.” For the drug problem, he proposed legalizing them for adults. To address the burgeoning welfare rolls, which was driving the city toward bankruptcy (over a ten year period, the city’s annual budget rose 128 percent), he advocated cutting it off for everyone, save invalids and mothers “looking after children 14 years or younger.” For the water shortage (which was so bad, the city would be declared a natural disaster zone) he proposed free market solutions, while supporting cutting taxes for businesses and ending the closed shop for unions. To black audiences, he urged them to embrace self-help solutions rather than government ones.
Despite only garnering 13.4 percent of the vote, much of his support from white voters because of his law and order message, this prefigured the silent majority constituency of Richard Nixon.
In a period where each message is poll-tested before being delivered, and bland, disconnected candidates like Hillary Clinton stage scenes of her appealingly dancing to Jennifer Lopez, Buckley’s candidacy was refreshing in its refusal to abandon principle for popularity.