The Unmaking of a Mayor

All smiles; Candidates Beame, Buckley & Lindsay

By William F. Buckley, Jr (1966)

New York may well be the greatest city in the world. The Varnished Culture loves it, as we have said again and again and again and again. But we are unlikely to have loved it in 1965. Then, as erudite Tory gadfly Buckley pungently puts it in his floridly verbose and fascinating account of that year’s Mayoral election, “You can’t walk from one end of New York to the other without a good chance of losing your wallet, your maidenhead, or your life; or without being told that white people are bigoted, that Negroes are shiftless, that free enterprise is the enemy of the working class, that Norman Thomas has betrayed socialism, and that the only thing that will save New York is for the whole United States to become like New York.”

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“Fun City” (© NYC Mayor John V Lindsay, his best and as far as we can recall, only joke), was in the 50s and 60s much like its sister, Chicago – a large urban centre with sprawling boroughs, racial and ethnic enclaves, a hierarchy of bosses, and a virtual emperor at its head. Awash with crime, narcotics and under-policing, housing shortages (including ‘affluent ghettoes’ protected by rent controls), inadequate water storage and metering, a colossal and stretched welfare net, failing schools and transport systems, dirty air and waterways, excessive taxes and extravagant spending. Mayor Robert Wagner (not the actor) had ruled over the Democratic stronghold of NYC since 1954. Of his three terms, Buckley writes, “…the trouble in New York was – is – not so much with maladministration as with a frozen ideology.”

Who then to challenge that stasis? After Wagner decided not to run for a 4th term, 3 men stepped forward to vie for the Mayoral robes; Abraham Beame, the Democratic nominee and political heir to Wagner, was a decent if colourless fellow with the advantage of incumbency, union support, and most of the Jewish vote. Also, John V Lindsay, “glamorous” Congressman and R.I.N.O. (‘Republican In Name Only’* as Buckley points out, appending a key portion of JVL’s congessional voting record to the book), representative of New York’s ‘silk stocking’ district (upper East side of Manhattan), whose key selling point was; “He is fresh, everyone else is tired.”  Lindsay had glamour and a profile as a Congressman – even better, he had refused (though an elected ‘Republican’) to support the right-wing Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election, Goldwater being less popular in NYC than the Boston Strangler; hence he could pose as a moderate Republican while garnering support from the left-of-Democrat Liberal Party, while appealing to his own elegant constituency in Manhattan, lovingly lassooed by Buckley as the “densest national concentration of vegetarians, pacifists, hermaphrodites, junkies, Communists, Randites, clam-juice-and-betel-nut eaters.”

And the Third Man? Believe it or not, Buckley himself, the hard-line conservative warrior with no direct political experience. Columnist and magazine (National Review) editor. New England patrician and collector of enemies. Running on the shoestring Conservative Party ticket, he was asked, early on, what he would do if elected Mayor of New York. He replied that he would “demand a recount.”  With that kind of attitude, it becomes clear – in retrospect –  that Buckley wasn’t out to win, but to take some paint off the other candidates, formulate some genuine policy ideas for the flailing city, gain some insight into a political campaign, and perhaps enhance his reputation and editorial platform.

The Book is structured, broadly, thematically and chronologically. After an interlude in which Buckley is “hobgoblinized” and thereby discovers – or purports to discover – “a lackadaisical concern for the truth…[and]…the general journalistic indifference that immediately descends on the discovery that, after all, there wasn’t any scandal there at all, and never mind the incidental victims of the flurry“, a theme that recurs here and there in the book, he reviews the parlous state of NYC and the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of much of the political scene in 1965, compares himself with John Lindsay (well worth a read, for nasty snickers), and deconstructs the touchy issues of race and religion. There follows a rather dry (but thoughtful) summary of the various positions of the 3 candidates on urban issues (race, welfare, crime, transport and so on), and concludes with notes on the campaign and the result of the election.

Buckley dispensed with the usual disciplines and strictures of modern electioneering. He tossed off ideas and bon mots with abandon. However, 10 years of policy work at the National Review (often carried out under spirited debate) enabled the candidate to propound serious policies. Some of Buckley’s ideas appear impractical, some unsettlingly repugnant. However, many were thoroughly sensible – his thoughts on welfare resonate today – and others (such as dedicated bikeways in Manhattan) ahead of their time. Throughout, while Buckley drips with contempt when discussing Lindsay (especially) and Beame, he does offer enough evidence of his rivals’ bromides and lack of hard ideas to justify the following comment in a 2015 foreward to the book by his campaign manager, Neal Freeman; “At first a few reporters, and then more, and then at last the full mewling herd began to concede that maybe, just maybe, Bill’s was a serious campaign. One reporter, the legendary McCandlish Phillips of The New York Times, began to toy with another idea. Perhaps Bill’s was the only serious campaign.”

The book is a terrific read, and in addition, valuable as a primer on political campaigns, an autobiography of an electoral neophyte, a delectable series of poison-pen correspondence, and a relic of mid-century American conservatism, which at the time was thought dead but was merely playing possum. Viewed through the high-resolution retrospect-o-scope, it also presages the shift in politics in the US (and beyond) that Buckley dissects among the voting patterns (though only yet impressively getting 13% of the vote, or 340,000 votes, especially among those later identified as ‘Reagan Democrats’) whereby the Left, always tending to the elitist, has become increasingly exclusively so.

Some of Buckley’s more inspired lines in the book:

“…Mayor O’Brien, whose daze during the entire period was symbolized by his speech to the Greek-American society in which he confessed his lifelong devotion to ‘”that great Greek poet, Horace.'”

But nowhere does one find any identification of Lindsay with a set of ideas designed to deliver New York from the succubi that had been emaciating the city.

“…the point might be made that there is no extant Republican philosophy, and that Lindsay is its prophet.”

Not only have I been unrewarded in the Times, I have not ever discovered, in all of America, from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam, a single “ultraliberal”…”Ultra'” (or “extreme”)…is exclusively reserved (a) for the unfashionable right (e.g., the Goldwaterites), or (b) as a dainty way of handling the Communist left (“the ultraliberal Paul Robeson...”)”

Political leverage tends to gravitate to the wealthy, to the influential, to the organized, to the (upper case) Minority.”

“…it is especially easy to apply a double standard, to disdain the moral and rational powers of the one class of voters – because its choice of candidate is different from your own…” [‘Basket of Deplorables’]

(On a muddled attack by Lindsay); “So help me, I could not believe my eyes. The sheer, utter, hopeless, humorless, philistine fatuity!

I was to learn that punctuality is yet another sign of the non-serious candidate.”

I had …an invaluable advantage, namely that I did not expect to win the election, and so could afford to violate the taboos.”

(After a superb lunch with senior people at The New York Times, unanimously hostile to him, Buckley was asked how he felt); “As though I had just passed through the Berlin Wall.”

Conservatism in America is rather a force than a political movement….I greatly regret the prospective decline of the GOP, because the alternative is likely to be a congeries of third parties, adamantly doctrinaire, inadequately led, insufficiently thoughtful, improvidently angry, self-defeatingly sectarian [in Australia, One Nation comes to mind – Ed.]…[Republican setbacks] might better have been absorbed as a necessary convulsion, a prelude to the crystallization of strong new programs distinctively Republican – bracing, realistic, courageous, strategically adventurous. Such programs at a national level should be delineated; and, if they aren’t soon, by more experienced men, I suppose I shall have to threaten another book, if not another campaign.”


[P.S. After his 2 terms as NYC Mayor, and an abortive run for President (as a Democrat), Lindsay tried acting, appearing in the critically panned Rosebud. Richard Schickel, reviewing the film for Time Magazine, opined; “John V. Lindsay plays a U.S. Senator pretty much as he played being Mayor of New York City – like a B-picture leading man.” – From The Golden Turkey Awards (1980) by Harry & Michael Medved (granting Lindsay the Award for ‘The Worst Performance by a Politician’).] [P.PS. The incisive 1972 political drama, The Candidate, in some ways resembles WFB’s 1965 NYC election (rookie draft pick, no chance to win – say what you like, etc, etc.) Did writer/director Michael Ritchie read Buckley’s book?] [*Think Malcolm Turnbull as a progressive posing as a conservative.]


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