Much attention has been afforded in this presidential campaign debating season to the attempts of the various contenders to utter memorable lines, most of which have ended in forms of failure perhaps best summed up by Hillary Clinton’s stabs at biting humor in her last two debates with Barack Obama. Only Democrat Joe Biden’s putdown of Republican Rudy Giuliani’s disaster-mongering campaign theme (“a noun, a verb and 9/11”) came close to making the mark.
But there really have been no 2008 equivalents of Ronald Reagan 1984 mockery of Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” or Lloyd Bentsen’s devastating “you’re no Jack Kennedy” line in his 1988 vice presidential dust-up with Dan Quayle.
And there certainly has been nothing so delicious as William F. Buckley’s best line from his 1965 New York mayoral campaign debate with memorable Republican John Lindsay and forgettable Democrat Abe Beame.
Buckley, the veteran National Review editor, PBS “Firing Line” host and author of everything from ideological tomes to spy novels who has died unexpectedly at age 82, was known for more than a half century as one of the republic’s abler practitioners of the English language and polemicist’s craft.
But never were his skills so amply on display as during Buckley’s sole foray into electoral politics.
Heading the metropolitan ticket of New York State’s Conservative Party, which had been created three years earlier to challenge the liberal Republicanism of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Congressman Lindsay, Buckley mounted his unlikely campaign as a no-hoper. He acknowledged as much at the time of his announcement – which roughly paralleled his relocation from his home in suburban Connecticut to a proper voting residence in the city he sought to lead – when the conservative commentator was asked what he would do if he was elected to lead the liberal city. “I’d demand a recount.”
Almost as perfect as Buckley’s zinger in that televised debate with Lindsay and Beame.
Even against the charismatic Lindsay, it was Buckley who owned every platform on which the candidates appeared. His confidence as a debater thrown up against two more experienced political campaigners was startling, and yet entirely appropriate.
Offered an opportunity during a key debate to use time that had been allotted him to present a rebuttal, Buckley did what no politician has the courage or the wisdom to do. He turned the moment with microphone down. Instead of repeating points he had already made, Buckley said, “I am satisfied to sit back and contemplate my own former brilliance.”
During the many years of our acquaintance, which began when I was researching a book on writers in politics, Buckley and I spent a good deal of time dissecting that 1965 campaign, which saw the commentator-turned-politico secure a credible 13.4 percent of the vote. Buckley argued that his ideas had touched a chord with disenchanted electors in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. And, surely, some of his ideas were appealing. While Buckley preached some standard tough-on-crime lines, he also criticized what would come to be described as “the war on drugs.” He proposed congestion fees to keep cars off crowded Manhattan streets. At his best, he offered a rare mix of libertarian idealism and pragmatic common sense that had appeal far beyond the closed quarters of a conservative movement that had just lost badly with 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
With the movement he did so much to shape on its heels, Buckley was more intellectually bold and ideologically adventurous in those mid-1960s than he would be later in a life when his would come to be known as a defining voice of modern conservatism. His ideas were dynamic in those days, much more so than when he found himself trying to describe the stumbles of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as pirouettes.
But the real appeal of that 1965 campaign, which Buckley chronicled with arch wit in a brilliant political book, Unmaking of a Mayor (Crown: 1966), was found in his smart wordplay and flamboyant style. Candidate Buckley was slyly self-deprecating and yet lavishly self promotional – often at the same time. Even those who might never have considered supporting the Conservative candidate relished his debate appearances and hung on his every word in television interviews.
Buckley was, as he suggested in one of the finer debate performances ever seen on an American political stage, “satisfied to sit back and contemplate my own former brilliance.” So were the rest of us when Buckley was alive. So we shall be now that that the commentator who has left such a rich legacy of written and recorded work – and political playfulness — has passed.