Recalling Seniority

By: Emlyn Cameron

In 1965, charismatic columnist William F. Buckley Jr. – a founder of the modern conservative movement – ran for mayor of New York City on a protest party ticket and came third in a field of three. Just five years later, his brother James Buckley, retiring and introverted, represented the same party in the race for U.S. senator and won a heated election in an upset. I wanted to know how such an intense political turn-around was achieved, and what it could say about early conservatism’s push to become the template for the Republican Party. 

While working on a history of these two elections, I reached out to James Buckley and visited Yale to examine William F. Buckley Jr. papers.  After my trip to the archives, I spoke to James Buckley over the phone for the second time, this time about legal maneuvers at the end of his Senate race. His low, lilting voice hesitated at times: At this far remove, there are details that he can’t offer from memory.

Emlyn: There were a few things that I wanted to sort of get more information on that had interested me in those papers – 

Buckley: All right.

Emlyn: – and one was a brief for a court case that apparently went from the Southern District Court in New York to the Second Circuit District Court, called Phillips v. Rockefeller, right after your election and apparently it was a case that was arguing the constitution required a majority as opposed to a plurality – 

Buckley: Right.

Emlyn: And I was wondering if you could tell me a bit more about what the process of contesting this proposition was like, outside of just the briefs and documentation? I mean, was this a matter of real concern?

Buckley: Believe it or not, this was a case that went through at record speed from the trial to the court of appeals and I didn’t know about it until it was all over. Normally it takes a couple of years, but this process went through in a couple of weeks.

Emlyn: Did you get informed about it when you got back from travel or some such?

Buckley: I was informed – the lawyer who argued the case before the court of appeals happened to be a good friend and told me about it after it happened.

Emlyn: Was he your counsel in a general sense?

Buckley: No, he was a lawyer who was a great friend of my brother Bill’s and did a lot of work at National Review and he was… I knew him just as a friend, not as a lawyer.

Emlyn: I saw another case which also interested me, which dealt with an argument that because you had been elected you should be able to move ahead of the usual transition period into office, because the person who preceded you, it seemed, was technically an interim replacement.

Buckley: I recall that now, yes, yes.

Emlyn: Could you tell me-

Buckley: Obviously it didn’t get anywhere.

Emlyn: Yes, indeed.

Buckley: It would have put me ahead of all the other newly elected senators that year in the- whatathey, whatathey call that word? [Buckley grunts] I’m at an age where I find it hard to get common words. Senators are ranked number 1 to number 100 –

Emlyn: Oh, freshman? [The word we were looking for was seniority]

Buckley: Yes, yeah. So instead of being ahead of the group elected in 1970, I ended up as the next to last. And that’s based on prior service and elective office and things of that sort – and the size of your state. I was not last because there are more people in New York than there are in Florida. And that of course has an impact in the choice of committee seats and things of that sort.

Emlyn: Did you then find that you struggled to get the committee seats that you had been hoping to get, or did it not really impact that in the long term?

Buckley: I did not have the best choices, but I did get the committee that I was most interested in – because its environmental work – namely Public Works.

Emlyn: Obviously, with the challenge to do with majority versus plurality you couldn’t have been involved because you heard about it after the fact, but were you more intimately aware of what was going with that case dealing with whether or not you could enter office ahead of time?

Buckley: No, I didn’t get personally involved.

Emlyn: Were you kept aware of what was going on by your counsel? Or was it just sort of like, you heard about it and-

Buckley: I just don’t recall.

Emlyn: Another thing that I’d seen in the papers were letters to a publishing house. It appeared you were in the midst of writing a book via dictation. The did not appear to be the publisher that put out your first book in 1972.

Buckley: That’s right.

Emlyn: I wondered if the publisher had changed midway through or if you ceased to work on that project from 1970.

Buckley: I simply couldn’t do that, and the publisher understood. But the book did come out, I think in 1974.

Emlyn: So, it was just a bit of a delay, but it made it through?

Buckley: Pardon me?

Emlyn: Bit of a delay, but it made it through?

Buckley: Yeah. Yeah.

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