The Right Coast

October 02, 2005
(Un)Mayor Buckley
By Maimon Schwarzschild

It is forty years since William F. Buckley ran for mayor of New York City -- against liberal Republican (or, as Buckley might have said, "Republican") John V. Lindsay, and Democratic Tammany hack Abe Beame. The New York Times Sunday Magazine has a very interesting retrospective on Buckley's run, and its broader significance for American politics in the decades since:
Forty years after it was decided, the mayoral race of 1965 remains one of the most memorable elections in New York history. It was also one of the strangest, thanks in large part to the candidacy of William F. Buckley Jr. It was odd enough that Buckley, author, magazine editor, columnist, debater and gadfly - with no experience in practical politics - should have sought this most thankless of jobs. Odder still that his campaign style invited comparisons with Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward and Mort Sahl. But oddest of all was that he was taken seriously - seriously enough to confound opponents, observers and analysts and throw the election up for grabs. Although it wasn't clear at the time, Buckley's bid for office was an important chapter in one of the crucial events in modern political history, the transformation of the consensus politics of the peak cold-war years of the 1950's and early 60's, its agenda set by liberals, into the more polarized politics of our era, ruled by conservatives.
The Times Magazine piece is by Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review. Tanenhaus writes vividly about the atmosphere of the mayoralty race, as well as about the election's significance for the alignment of American political thinking.

Buckley himself has written a fascinating and funny book about the race: The Unmaking of A Mayor. (Buckley's title is both a play on the heavy-middlebrow "Making of the President" books by Theodore White which were bestsellers in the 1960s, and a tease as to whether the mayor who was "unmade" was Buckley himself -- who never expected to be elected -- or Lindsay, who was elected, but with diminished stature and appeal as a result of Buckley's mockery throughout the campaign.) Unlike Buckley's own still-very-readable account, Sam Tanenhaus' Times piece recounts the race partly through the conventional liberal prism. In fact, Tanenhaus veers somewhat between obvious admiration and affection for Buckley on the one hand, and in effect accusing Buckley, on the other, of running a "racial backlash" campaign:
As the fury mounted, Buckley remained as genial and relaxed as ever. He possessed a talent, perhaps even a genius, for modulating effortlessly between his two personas, the ideological firebrand who made direct appeals to the mob alternating with the comic patrician who charmed sophisticated audiences. "He is the first candidate for a major local office in years who is working at the top of an acute intelligence and who possesses real and not press-agented style," Pete Hamill of The Post observed. "Yet he remains the leader of people who seem to understand only the emotion of contempt."
Buckley would certainly dispute that he sought -- or received -- racist votes: in fact he vigorously disputes both in Unmaking of A Mayor. Still, Tanenhaus's piece today is by no means a hatchet job. Read it: both for its colourful detail and its broader reflections.

Sam Tanenhaus himself is something of an exception at the now largely unreadable, Bush-derangement-syndrome New York Times. He is the author of a fascinating biography of Whitaker Chambers, which fully recognises that Chambers was right about Alger Hiss, whose treason in behalf of Stalin is still not quite acknowledged by many "liberals" (including, as Tanenhaus points out, Anthony Lake -- Clinton's nominee to direct the CIA). And Tanenhaus is now working on a biography of Bill Buckley.

When Tanenhaus' biography of Chambers was published a few years ago, Buckley, who had been a close friend of Chambers, did a Firing Line episode with Tanenhaus. It's a spectacular interview: warm and revealing about all three -- Chambers, Tanenhaus, and Buckley. Buckley draws Tanenhaus out wonderfully about Chambers' tormented personality, his close but difficult relations with the "New York intellectuals", and the Hiss case itself. You can see a full video of the programme at the Hoover Institution's website for Buckley and Firing Line. It is a treat. Settle in and watch: it's a half hour you won't regret.