Monday, August 04, 2008

An All-You-Can-Eat Buffet for the Brain

I miss William F. Buckley, Jr. His books have been intellectual comfort food for me for years and years, ever since that first episode of Firing Line I watched back in college, when the century's greatest polemicist very politely and genteelly dismantled and demolished Derek Humphreys, founder of what was then known as the Hemlock Society. I am one who likes to read my favorite books over and over again, sometimes savoring them for years before going on to new ones by the same author. I have finally gotten to another Buckley book that I have been hoarding for some time -- a new treasure of his inimitable wit for curling up in front of the fire with on a cold winter's evening, and new aspects of his courage and fortitude to appreciate.

I wish I could have found a picture of The Unmaking of a Mayor (Arlington House Publishers, New Rochelle, 1977 reprint) bigger than a postage stamp; because for all that we are constantly warned never to judge a book by its cover, the cover of this book aptly previews the humor of its contents. It is the story of Bill Buckley's unconventional campaign for mayor of New York City in 1965, against Democrat Abraham Beame and liberal Republican John Lindsay.
Until late in the campaign, Buckley was dismissed by the liberal elites -- including the other two candidates -- as an "unserious" candidate, because of (a) his third-party candidacy (he ran on the Conservative Party ticket); (b) his puckish humor; (c) the fact that, as he himself acknowledged, he had almost no chance of winning; (d) his flat refusal to pander to special interest groups; and (e) his unabashedly and outspokenly conservative agenda, regarded by the elite of the mid '60s as laughable, relics of of the Pleistocene Era. Yet despite his humor, and the campaign gaffes arising from his status as a non-politician, Buckley was engaged in the deadly serious business of trying to give the voters of New York City an authentically conservative option; and above all, trying to forestall the deadly dilution of conservatism within the Republican Party, whose left-wing, anti-Goldwater candidate for mayor -- aptly described by Buckley as an "interloper" -- threatened to become a titan on the national political scene.
Although our cultural elites in the mainstream media and the universities are still lock-step, knee-jerk liberals, it is perhaps difficult for ordinary, 21st-century conservative Americans to appreciate just how much courage it took in 1965 to come out publicly and unapologetically as a conservative. But in 1965, there was no Rush Limbaugh; there was no Fox News Channel; there was no Internet; and "liberal" was not a dirty word. Because Buckley openly proclaimed unpopular truths about the state of affairs in New York City, he became an instant target for all sorts of ugly charges, from racism to anti-Catholicism (!) to being "a philosophical anarchist proving that the people of New York are doltish swine who are incapable of ruling themselves" (p. 293). Nor was the press above flatly distorting him, as in the episode in which his use of the word "epicene" to describe the resentment of anti-Vietnam protesters was was turned into an allegation that the protesters were homosexuals (pp. 254-258); or when, before he entered the mayoral race, his speech at a Holy Name Society communion breakfast was falsely reported as an endorsement of racist police tactics in Selma, Alabama (Chapter 1). That Buckley should have borne, to the end of what became a vicious campaign, such a burden of opprobrium with such grace is a great testament to his fortitude.

Still, it was a burden he assumed voluntarily. A savvy political analyst like Bill Buckley had to know he was in for a rough ride if he got into a political race; so why did he run? "Because," he declared in a self-interview before the National Press Club on August 4, 1965 (pp. 3-8), "nobody else is who matters." Meaning, he went on to elaborate, that "New York is a city in crisis, and all the candidates agree it is a city in crisis. But no other candidate proposes to do anything about that crisis."

In The Unmaking of a Mayor, Buckley unfolds the history of politics in New York City, laying the groundwork for the then-current state of affairs; his plan to deal with the crisis of New York City; his analysis of his opponents, and their positions, and the non-existent difference between them; the course of the campaign, which culminated in a victory for John Lindsay and a mere 13% of the vote for Buckley. He submits, for our examination, the position papers he published on a variety of municipal issues from water and sewage to air pollution to taxation; and he serves up a generous helping of morsels from press conferences, correspondence and speeches. All sparkles with the trademark Buckley wit, verve, and razor-sharp intellect.

And then there are the passages that just make one laugh out loud. Buckley on the debates (pp. 273-274):
Lindsay would arrive at the studios very tense, and instantly he would cover the desk area in front of him with a half-acre of three-by-five cards on which were graven in Magic Marker the salient points or statistics he intended to make and cite in the course of the fracas. (I had a mad impulse, one time when he went off for a moment to pose for a picture, to scramble the cards around, or maybe doctor the statistics just a little, horrible bit.)...

...Beame, so nervous that his hand shook when he reached for a piece of paper, had several notebooks, and several brilliantly memorized passages of rhetoric, one of which he never changed...-- he always closed with it. "New York has done a great deal for me. It sent me through school. I love this city. I owe a lot to this city. . . ." I commented about the third time around that if he really desired to requite his obligation to New York, perhaps he should consider withdrawing from public office in favor of me. He managed a wan smile.

On the effect of his victory on the mainstream press, if it ever materialized (pp. 302-303):

On leaving the [New York] Times building I found a television crew waiting outside to question me for comment on LBJ's sudden endorsement of Beame, which had just come in over the wire. We disposed of that subject, and Gabe Pressman of NBC, the cameras still rolling, asked me jocularly how I felt on emerging from the Times building and I said -- the kind of thingk, I fear, that makes some people gray with anger -- that it was as though I had just passed through the Berlin Wall. "What is the first thing you would do if elected?" he pressed. "Hang a net outside the window of the editor." If I had been more conservative, less impulsive -- more civic minded? -- I suppose I
would have recommended a commission to investigate the desirability of suspending such a net.
The Unmaking of a Mayor is an all-you-can-eat buffet for the brain. I toast Mr. Buckley, and pray that the comfort and enjoyment he has given me in this book has earned him at least some reprieve from Purgatory.

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