Just for the fun of it

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Paul Green­berg is the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning ed­i­to­rial writer and colum­nist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Paul Green­berg

The year was 1965, ac­cord­ing to Thomas E. Lynch in Only Half in Fun, pub­lished in the fall 2015 is­sue of Mod­ern Age, and Claire Booth Luce, a Repub­li­can con­gress­woman from New York who had long rep­re­sented the tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tive val­ues of the Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment, could look over the still smol­der­ing re­mains of Barry Gold­wa­ter’s dis­as­trously ide­o­log­i­cal pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and shake her head in dis­may. She had much the same low opin­ion of New York City, which she de­scribed as “the big­gest ur­ban mess on Earth.” The state of the Union that year wasn’t much bet­ter.

And then along came 39-year-old Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr. to shake the coun­try up just as he had his alma mater by writ­ing God and Man at Yale, in which he ex­plored the lack of aca­demic free­dom on a cam­pus sup­pos­edly devoted to it, but which had room only for the most con­ven­tional of lib­eral bro­mides. Mr. Buck­ley proved a man far ahead of his time by de­fend­ing time­less ideas like re­spect for in­di­vid­ual choices, a free mar­ket for ideas as well as goods and ser­vices, ac­count­abil­ity to the vot­ers, and let­ting lo­cal gov­ern­ment de­cide lo­cal is­sues. And even let­ting neigh­bor­hoods de­cide neigh­bor­hood is­sues.

When it came to city plan­ning, young Buck­ley’s gen­eral pol­icy was sim­ple: He was agin it—in gen­eral and of­ten enough in par­tic­u­lar cases. Or as he put it, echo­ing the view of Jane Ja­cobs in her magnum opus The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities, “the beauty of New York is threat­ened by the schematic de­signs of . . . so­cial ab­strac­tion­ists . . . who do not rec­og­nize what it is that makes for hu­man at­tach­ments—to lit­tle build­ings and shops [and] to ar­eas of re­pose and ex­cite­ment.”

Buck­ley was just as fore­sighted when it came to race and eth­nic­ity, fol­low­ing the lead of Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han and Nathan Glazer, who in their book Be­yond the Melt­ing Pot had just pointed out the cen­tral­ity of pre­serv­ing the fam­ily if poverty among black Amer­i­cans (and now all Amer­i­cans) was to be ef­fec­tively com­bated. And he was all for bike­ways to re­lieve traf­fic con­ges­tion and break up the tyranny of the au­to­mo­bile over Amer­i­cans’ lives.

When it came to crime, he was agin it too, just as he was op­posed to mol­ly­cod­dling crim­i­nals. He even played with the idea of le­gal­iz­ing then il­le­gal drugs with­out fore­see­ing all the ad­di­tional prob­lems that “so­lu­tion” would bring with it then, and brings with it now.

But most of all it was his sense of hu­mor that char­ac­ter­ized Mr. Buck­ley’s quixotic cam­paign for mayor of the coun­try’s largest city. The au­dac­ity of the man, to look upon a solemn cam­paign for mayor as an op­por­tu­nity to share a laugh with his fel­low cit­i­zens, which is per­haps the best way to take pol­i­tics se­ri­ously. For there is still much truth in jest.

The idea of run­ning for mayor of New York, he would later re­call, “came to me very sud­denly.” Yes, why not ac­tu­ally run for mayor in­stead of just writ­ing crit­i­cal ar­ti­cles about those who do? It could be done as the can­di­date of his state’s Con­ser­va­tive Party, and he pro­ceeded to do it with the bless­ing of that party’s lead­ers. With lit­tle pub­lic sup­port at the out­set of his cam­paign, he would do it for the heck­u­vit. It would be a ven­ture in which WFB com­bined the small­est ef­fort with the great­est art. His aris­to­cratic air didn’t seem to alien­ate New York­ers as much as fas­ci­nate them. And they be­gan to pay closer and closer at­ten­tion to his views. Qual­ity ap­peals across class lines. Just as hu­mor does. As in this ex­change with the sup­posed ladies and gen­tle­men of the Fourth Es­tate: “Do you want to be mayor, sir?” WFB: “I have never con­sid­ered it …” “How many votes do you ex­pect to get, con­ser­va­tively speak­ing?”

WFB: “Con­ser­va­tively speak­ing, one.” The can­di­date of the Con­ser­va­tive Party con­tin­ued to joust with the press in a style the late great colum­nist Mur­ray Kemp­ton de­scribed as that of “an Ed­war­dian res­i­dent com­mis­sioner read­ing aloud the 39 Ar­ti­cles of the Angli­can es­tab­lish­ment to a con­script as­sem­blage of Zu­lus.”

And what would the first thing pu­ta­tive Mayor Buck­ley would do if he were elected to the post he nom­i­nally sought? His now clas­sic re­sponse: He would “de­mand a re­count.” So it went, and it’s hard to think of a more en­ter­tain­ing — and witty — race for mayor in great Amer­i­can city in re­cent his­tory. And yet the Buck­ley cam­paign scarcely made the pa­pers un­til — ev­ery­thing sud­denly broke his way. Be­gin­ning with the best break imag­in­able: The News­pa­per Guild called a strike and for the next three weeks and two days, and there was no longer a me­dia-oc­racy to get be­tween Buck­ley and the vot­ers. He was able to com­mu­ni­cate with­out any in­ter­me­di­ary set­ting the terms of the en­gage­ment.

Buck­ley’s mer­ci­lessly gen­teel style made him the sun around which es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans and eth­nic-based Democrats had to cir­cle in search of vot­ers, and more and more of them re­gard­less of creed, color or class were drawn into his or­bit. To quote one com­men­ta­tor: “Love him or hate him, TV fans found it dif­fi­cult to turn off a mas­ter po­lit­i­cal show­man,” while Theodore White, who cov­ered ev­ery cam­paign as his­tory, de­scribed this young con­tender as a star who “would be Os­car Wilde’s fa­vorite can­di­date for any­thing.”

To quote one of Buck­ley’s cam­paign aides, Neal Free­man, on his can­di­date’s strong show­ing when the elec­tion re­turns were fi­nally in on elec­tion night: “I can tell you that it sur­prised me. I sup­pose that I was ex­pect­ing our sup­port­ers to be Na­tional Re­view types — car deal­ers, aca­demic moles, lit­er­ate den­tists . . . . As soon as we hired halls, though, we learned that [Buck­ley] was speak­ing for the peo­ple who made the city go — cor­ner-store own­ers, cops, school teach­ers, first-home own­ers, fire­men, cop­ing par­ents.” In short, We the (hard-work­ing) Peo­ple — the kind who got up ev­ery morn­ing and put Gotham in mo­tion.

In the end, John Lind­say got his vic­tory, but with only 45 per­cent of the vote while his Demo­cratic op­po­nent, dull-as-dish­wa­ter Abe Beame, polled 41 per­cent. John Lind­say’s hopes of ever mak­ing it as a na­tional can­di­date were dashed for­ever and Buck­ley would be­come the host of the long­est-run­ning in­ter­view pro­gram in Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion’s his­tory. And all be­cause Buck­ley de­cided to have a lit­tle fun and, oh yes, get the last laugh.

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