James L. Buckley turns 100 Thursday. America’s oldest living former senator and older brother of the late William F. Buckley Jr., Jim Buckley achieved the first third-party victory to the Senate in 40 years when he won in 1970 as the candidate of the Conservative Party in New York.
A veteran of World War II, a corporate lawyer, father and husband, Jim Buckley served in all three branches of the federal government as undersecretary of state in the Reagan administration and later as president of Radio Free Europe.
In 1986, he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to be a federal judge on the all-important U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where he served until 2003. Senior Judge Douglas Ginsburg observed that Buckley was “unexcelled as a stylist and a craftsman” in his written opinions.
Jim is the fourth of 10 children born to Aloïse Steiner Buckley and William F. Buckley Sr.
As Jack Fowler, the former publisher of National Review, tells it, Bill Buckley persuaded his brother Jim to run in 1968 as the Conservative Party candidate for Senate, challenging incumbent liberal Republican Jacob Javits. Having served well as campaign manager for Bill Buckley’s quixotic quest for the New York Mayor’s office, the elder Buckley was seen as something of a political talent. He entered the Senate race with no expectation for victory. To intend on winning would have been irresponsible, he observed, given the professional and familial obligations he currently had.
What did emerge in the campaign was that the wave of social and political turbulence—if not chaos—of 1968 led voters to call for new leadership to emerge and redirect a badly mangled public square. Buckley argued that he was running because he believed “strongly in the principles—the Republican principles—which among the parties in New York state these days the Conservative Party alone espouses.”
The liberal Republican New York standard of then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Javits, who both held conservatives in scorn, would no longer suffice for a center-right electorate. That center-right electorate was now joined by a new group, the forerunner of the Reagan Democrats. They had grown tired of the New Left’s substance and style and of the disorder their policies had bred. To these disaffected individuals, Buckley had crossover appeal.
He proved to be one of the leaders of a new conservative politics, defiant of leftist hypocrisy on crime, drugs, and social order, with surprising strength in blue-collar neighborhoods, whose electoral precincts proved to be a base of support in the 1968 election.
Jim took on campus radicals, anti-Vietnam War protestors, and what can only be described as the rank anti-Americanism of the New Left. He bested both Javits and the Democrat Paul O’Dwyer in many blue-collar districts. The outcome of the election saw the continued erosion of power of the Rockefeller Republicans. Jim scored 1,139,402 votes, or 17.31%, losing to Javits’ plurality win.
Even though he had sworn off any future election bids, Jim stepped back into the 1970 election for the vacated Senate seat of Robert F. Kennedy. Rockefeller appointed a moderate Republican congressman, Charles Goodell, to fill the open seat.
Goodell voted as a liberal in the Senate, so the strategic opening for a conservative to win the contest was apparent. Buckley would build on his previous base of support and essentially run against two liberals in Goodell and the Democrat, Richard Ottinger.
Buckley would win with 40% of the vote. His campaign was unabashedly conservative with a focus on federalism, small government, separation of powers, and an emphasis on policies designed to lift black Americans to higher economic levels.
While in the Senate, Buckley introduced the Human Life Amendment in response to Roe v. Wade. He also opposed campaign spending and finance restrictions and joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in Buckley v. Valeo to fight these regulations that he regarded as an attack on free speech. Buckley v. Valeo produced a mixed result by striking down restrictions on campaign spending while also upholding certain rules on campaign donations.
He drew Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan as an opponent in 1976 and lost. Moynihan’s sober liberalism and Catholic background meant that they would split the neighborhoods that had been a source of strength for Buckley. Buckley’s principled conservatism may have proved too much for many New Yorkers who decided to side with Moynihan. He opposed the federal bailout of New York City in 1975. Moynihan ran hard against his fiscal conservatism and overall lack of support for growing the federal government. .
A fitting story on this last campaign comes from Neal Freeman, who had been hired by John Buckley, Buckley’s eldest brother, to conduct opposition research on him in preparation for whatever the Democrats might do in the 1976 election campaign. Neal reports that he hired three different private detectives to do their best to find rumors, innuendo, and scandals that were not known. He wanted the worst they could find.
Neal summarized his findings for the Buckley brothers as follows: “Jimmy’s criminal career seems to have peaked with the allegation, later refuted, that he had torn one of those tags off a mattress.” There was nothing.
Sterling character obviously doesn’t always win elections, nor does it guarantee prudence and success in public office. But it can equal those things, and in certain individuals, the merger of personal virtue, political foresight, and wisdom becomes complete.
The “sainted junior senator from New York”—as Bill Buckley once referred to his brother—was the last conservative to represent New York in the U.S. Senate. Might he be the last?
Dismal consequences reign again in the Empire State, produced by the combined weight of years of progressive Democratic dominance in major offices. Buckley’s 1968-70 political approach has already reemerged among New York Republicans, almost leading to the capture of the governor’s office by Lee Zeldin in 2022.
Buckley’s 2014 book, “Saving Congress from Itself,” strikes at one of the biggest lies of our republic: federal grant-in-aid programs to states. Medicaid is one of the largest. Members of Congress love state and local grants; they serve their short-term political purposes very well. As he notes, the federal government “distributed just $24 billion when I was elected, by 2015 that figure had reached almost $641 billion, or one-sixth of total federal spending, all for purposes that are none of Washington’s business.”
However, beyond the expenditure amounts themselves, the worst part of this arrangement is the slow-working corruption of our constitutional order that it imposes. The federal government is supposed to spend for national purposes, with the states holding powers to tax and spend for their local matters. But that has been upended with the Supreme Court affirming in 1937 that federal expenditures for the general welfare that are purely local are constitutional. Congress lacks authority to legislate in a certain area, but it can provide the states with funds to do so. These grants have proven virtually impossible for states to resist. They are not paid for by state taxes, thus state officials can claim political credit for them while imposing zero costs for implementing them.
Buckley observes that “Members of Congress have become addicted to grants programs (there are now well over a thousand of them) because they deal with matters that have the most immediate impacts on their constituents’ lives, such as housing, schooling, job training, potholes, you name it.”
We might view these federal spending programs as part of our profound belief that there are no tradeoffs in government, just spend and spend without bothering to pay for it. Buckley’s book attempts to revive a constitutional federalism with states having to compete and take responsibility for matters in their jurisdiction.
But this reform is incredibly difficult to achieve because “instead of concentrating on the critical problems that only Congress can address, its members now devote major portions of their time on matters that are none of their constitutional business,” he writes.
The federal government should be about debate and deliberation on national issues, no longer using the spending power as a stand-alone faculty to shape the policies of state and local governments. Saint Jim, a wise man of time past and time present, has given us pure wisdom, rooted in the Constitution’s vision of ordered liberty. Let us praise and celebrate his 100th birthday.
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