In the early 1960’s the Conservative Party of New York State is formed as a right-wing protest ticket. It is meant to counter the effect of New York’s small Liberal Party, which tries to move all parties in New York state left by showing the votes they can attract with a liberal platform. A few years later, in 1965, William F. Buckley Jr. runs for mayor of New York on the Conservative ticket. The popular and playful conservative pundit draws attention to his campaign with his characteristic repartee but runs a bare-bones race with his brother James as his campaign manager and comes in third, as he expected to.
In 1968, William convinces James to run for Senate as the Conservative Party candidate as his duty to their political movement. James Buckley, a naturally shy man, does not take well to campaigning, but, despite not running with a serious intention of winning, finds that his run attracts a disproportionate number of votes comparative to the money raised for the race. He loses, but not by the margin he imagined.
Travelling abroad for his work with the family’s oil company consultancy after the election, James is increasingly troubled by how he sees life in America described from abroad. Returning home, he contacts a friend whose political savvy he trusts and discusses a serious run for the Republican candidacy. Discovering that he is unable to run as a Republican, he explores the possibility of another third party run for the Conservative Party.
When he realizes he has a legitimate chance of winning, he undertakes the race and hires the political advisor who had engineered Barry Goldwater’s successful grab for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, Clifton White. Over the course of a fast—paced and bitter race, Buckley comes to believe he is touching on a legitimate wealth of support in the state for conservative views. At an ecstatic rally in October, the crowd reaction convinces him he will win the race. He represents support for the Nixon administration – and agreement with most of the president’s policies – where his Republican and Democratic opponents call for an end to the Vietnam War and a more liberal approach to economic issues. In light of this, Vice President Spiro Agnew endorses Buckley as an implicit nod from the president. Meanwhile, public opinion outside of conservative circles is sensing an ominous, reactionary groundswell converging behind the Buckley platform.
Finally, the day before the election dawns.
Chapter 10: Take That Hill
It was Monday, November 2 and James Buckley was at the end of his race – and his rope.
The day, like every day for ages, it seemed, had been mapped out and scheduled to bursting:
By 10:00 a.m., he was delivering a news conference at the Overseas Press Club.
At 10:45 a.m., he rushed from the press club to a General Foods in White Plains, New York.
At noon, he began a speech to General Foods employees on their lunch hour.
Thirty minutes later, he conducted a private luncheon.
Then, at 1:45 p.m., he hurried back to New York City to shoot an hour-long statement of his policy positions, produced by a young television advisor to Richard Nixon named Roger Ailes, which would play at intervals on ABC and CBS affiliates later that night.
After that, increasingly wrung out, he prepared for a final radio debate with his two opponents, Republican Charles Goodell and Democrat Richard Ottinger.
As the debate ran on, the already exhausted-looking, but infinitely reusable version of himself recorded by Ailes and packaged as Election Eve with James Buckley began its rounds on WCBS at 10:00 p.m.
In the hallway of the radio station, Ann Buckley and the children waited, each wearing their Buckley campaign buttons. Assembled reporters and technicians watched the flagging and muted candidates hash it out one last time, until five minutes after midnight.
Ten minutes after that, the taped James Buckley from Election Eve began its final hour-long lap on television sets in Syracuse. The man himself, eyes bloodshot, finally got to go home and try to get some sleep. He had to be up and at the United Nations School by 7:00 a.m. – his schedule specified Promptly and had it underlined – to vote.
Campaigning had never suited Buckley. It was all too much for a man who wanted to do the quiet work of interpreting legal language and didn’t like to insist anyone pay him attention: The pomp, the drama, the noise, the endless meeting and greeting – and the slogging charge from campaign stop to campaign stop – wore Buckley through.
He had been sick all that week, just as he’d been sick the final week of the last campaign. His family had a history of lung problems (his grandfather, a sheriff in Duval County, Texas, had immigrated to the United States from Canada to ease his asthma). The New York Daily News’ election day issue called out his “hacking cough.”
Followed almost everywhere by a guaranteed coterie of New York Times and New York Daily News reporters, Buckley got a brief chance at peace on his way to the voting booth. It was a lucky thing, too: When he went to cast his vote, he was told that the staff at the voting location were having trouble verifying that he was registered to vote in New York, where he was seeking office. There was a snafu having to do with his residency in Connecticut: He had spent over decade working in New York and kept a residence in the state – but the fact that his family lived on the Great Elm estate in Sharon, Connecticut was causing bureaucratic confusion. It took him two hours to get everything squared away.
At the Waldorf-Astoria, preparations were underway for the night’s festivities. Ron Docksai, national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom – the young conservative group that had been formed at the Buckley estate in Sharon 10 years earlier – arrived midafternoon to help with the process. Tables were brought out, tablecloths draped primly across them, seats arranged, and patriotic décor prominently displayed.
When their work was done, bunting hung from every elaborately decorated balcony, and photographs of James Buckley and Paul Adams (the Conservative Party candidate for governor) hung from the rafters to the left and right of a podium on stage, behind which had been arranged a copse of American flags. Between the photos was strung an enormous centerpiece of bunting – a massive rictus of red, white, and blue fabric – over which was placed the banner of the Conservative Party of New York State, with its sketch of Lady Liberty’s hand, torch alight.
After voting, James Buckley made his way to East 73rd Street, where his brother William kept an apartment. The place was like an amplified echo of a Louis XIV sitting room, thick with pillows, richly-patterned drapes, and ornately framed paintings. That night, it also overflowed with enthusiastic, familiar faces. Four televisions had been tuned to election results. Over the course of hours, smoke from cigars and cigarettes filled the air, drinks rattled, and the gathered crowd laughed and chatted.
James Buckley finally relaxed. The day before, each candidate had been willing to insist he was confident of his chances. Now the returns were coming in and, as Goodell fell further and further behind, the returns for Ottinger or Buckley remained so evenly-matched it was anyone’s guess who would be the senator-elect come morning.
That the New York Daily News polling predicted Buckley would beat Ottinger in the end was an added assurance for the Conservative candidate, but, in any case, James Buckley had done all he could. No one was going to make him go out stumping again, at least for a little while. He could recline in his brother’s all-red library and anticipate with relief the prospect of delivering his last speech of the campaign – concession or victory.
Ottinger and Goodell, like Buckley, had cast their votes and sought what passed for privacy on a campaign trail. They were holing up in their respective hotels with family to await the results: In the Commodore Hotel’s Windsor Room, the Ottinger staff and their reserved candidate took in the returns. Ottinger’s name was printed in a round, modern font on a sign over the podium. The name had a border around it, with a series of similar, smaller borders arranged beneath it, to make it look like the name was leaping up and at the reader, leaving a streak in its meteoric ascent. On the lobby level of the Roosevelt Hotel, Goodell’s staff had converted the Terrace Room into their headquarters, putting up six black and white televisions to keep track of the votes. Above the stage they strung their banner, with its optimistic slogan – “He’s too good to lose.” On the mezzanine floor above, in the main ballroom, Governor Rockefeller assembled his supporters for a massive blowout featuring several bands.
Buckley left for the Waldorf-Astoria around 9:00 p.m., as the polls closed. With counts streaming in, the Buckley clan watched the returns from their suite. In the ballroom, large, boxy grey cameras on tripods mounted on tables watched the brightly lit stage. The mass of Conservative revelers that had been filling up the space for two or three hours continued to swell: Some belonged to the aging, starchily dressed middle class most firmly associated with the Conservative movement, but also present were Buckley’s dedicated blue-collar, Catholic hard hats and a great many young supporters with long hair and ebullient enthusiasm.
For Herb Stupp, a YAFer and the head of Youth for Buckley, the night was a blur as he coordinated his share of the event and visited colleagues in the campaign’s youth suite. His friend Frank Donatelli – a YAF member like himself – had flown in from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania just to see the election festivities and show his support, though he wasn’t a New York voter, and he would be staying the night in the suite with other teens and young adults. For part of the night, Buckley sat cross-legged on the floor of the suite with some of them, watching the vote count on CBS, relaxed, smiling.
When he’d met Buckley, Stupp had been working over the summer as doorman at the Walfdorf Astoria. At their first meeting, he’d even still been wearing the lime-green officer’s cap and jacket, with epaulets and a gold braid under one arm, from his shift. Now he was a major staff member of the campaign renting his former employer’s ballroom.
At 9:24 p.m., the race for governor was being called for Rockefeller. Staffers for his Democrat opponent, Arthur Goldberg, were despondent.
At the Roosevelt, color televisions in the main ballroom could broadcast the incoming votes to a growing crowd of happy supporters, as five bands hired to play for the evening created a triumphant clamor. Rockefeller was going on to a record fourth term. Below the floorboards, at Goodell headquarters, the news was more dire. The senator and his staff had no music as he trailed ever further behind his opponents.
People began to leave.
The Waldorf-Astoria ballroom was packed and buzzing by 10:00 p.m. The YAF magazine, New Guard, later said that that 5,000 people were present, and that at least half were young people backing Buckley.
Robert Redford, researching for his film The Candidate, came to the hotel to chat up thrilled Buckley family and supporters.
A band in black tie sat in ensemble, some members playing sax and others strumming electric guitars. Arnold Steinberg – the campaign’s young news director – had not planned on having a band and tried to convince the hotel to allow the festivities to go on without music, but the band had a union contract and the hotel insisted on having them play. Patriotic tunes and Dixieland music wafted through the air as security guards in dark shirts and low, visored caps patrolled the area and kept a buffer between the crowd and the stage. There was cause to want a campaign event well-guarded. Many people were convinced Buckley’s supporters themselves were dangerous, bigoted radicals, and his ascension to the office of senator would be a new high-water mark for reactionary politics. And politicians who created a stir had been killed by people who disagreed with their views in the recent past: Robert Kennedy, who’d held the same Senate seat that Buckley now sought, had been assassinated only two years earlier on his way out of a hotel in California where he had just given a victory speech after a primary vote during his bid for president.
At 10:15 p.m., one network announced that Buckley appeared to be leading. At William’s apartment, the columnist sprung about boyishly with a cigar between his teeth, taking to his grand piano for a few bars while his wife arranged a celebratory round of champagne. Around this time, Buckley’s campaign manager Clifton White was assuring James he would take the election with 38 percent of the vote.
Dead last and his campaign $500,000 in debt, Charles Goodell was in low spirits.
“You did the best you could, Charlie,” Senator Jacob Javits told him, “nobody could have done better.”
At 10:30 p.m., he left the few hundred supporters and staff who had not departed his headquarters in the Roosevelt for Rockefeller’s ballroom and walked upstairs to a suite to be alone with his family.
At Ottinger headquarters, the Democrat’s dedicated staff were bordering on tears as he continued to lag just slightly behind the Conservative Party candidate.
By 11:00 p.m., the nightly news was still insisting the result was uncertain in what was increasingly a race between Buckley and Ottinger, but hopeful anticipation in the Buckley crowd was growing.
At about 12:30 a.m., the increasingly ebullient crowd of Conservatives in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria listened to a rendition of the Colonel Bogey March. The tune had been made famous by the 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai: A band of ragged British POWS whistle the march in unison while defiantly performing their drills under guard in a Japanese encampment. Since then, the song had become synonymous with resolute opposition. And – much like the Conservative Party of New York State was meant to show the state Republican Party how many votes could be won with a conservative platform – the colonel for whom the song was named was an imaginary golfer whose score represented what a real player should strive to achieve under ideal conditions. His name, in turn, was derived from the Bogey Man.
Half an hour later, Buckley was in the elevator, on his way to the stage. He was about to declare victory. He’d received 39 percent of the state’s votes, a plurality that edged out Richard Ottinger at 37 percent, and blew away Charles Goodell’s 23 percent. He emerged onto the stage with his wife Ann and their children. They were joined by White, gubernatorial candidate Paul Adams (who lost, as he had expected, to Republican incumbent Nelson Rockefeller), and an assortment of other supporters including the heads of the Police and Firefighters unions. Buckley smiled at his new constituents. In a rare moment of public, unadulterated glee, he threw his hands up and his head back. Balloons fell from the ceiling, showering the stage. Buckley announced he had won.
The crowd chanted together, their hands pumping in the air, fingers raised to the sky, caught in the bright light that shone on their senator. In his concession speech at 1:15 a.m., Charles Goodell said he believed he had “succumbed to tides in this country that are wrong.” One wonders what he might have thought watching the roiling sea of upraised hands then emerging from a dark and crowded horizon, had he heard the rumble, swell, and crash of their united shouts:
The huddled members of Buckley’s staff and family on stage took his hands and lifted them above their heads, as though each were a referee announcing his victory in a title bout.
Then he placed his hands on either side of the podium and leaned into the bouquet of microphones.
“It has been a genuine coalition of the people to reach out and take this great state, and to push it in a new direction,” he said. “And to telegraph across the country that the American people want a new course, they want a new politics, and I…”
Roy Docksai, in the crowd near the stage, thought he looked uncomfortable.
“…am the voice of that new politics.”
There was a thunderclap of cheers. Members of the audience began to dance. The rest of the Buckley clan, having arrived for the end of the vote count, was jubilant. William hugged his brother as they smiled to the approving crowd from the podium. (Later that night, the story goes, YAFers ecstatic over the victory would seize William Buckley and, lifting him to their shoulders, carry him like a triumphant coach through the hallways of the Waldorf-Astoria.) People stood or kneeled near James and William’s mother Alois Buckley, smiling as she spoke.
At the Commodore Hotel, Richard Ottinger gave his concession speech. He said “moderate, independent, liberal, and progressive” voters had divided themselves, allowing Buckley to win, and the nation couldn’t afford more such division. But there was hope, he said, in the fact that it was plurality that put Buckley in office.
“Sixty-two percent of the people of the State of New York,” he announced from the podium, “today reaffirmed their desire for decent values in our society.”
But the rest had said they wanted a representative who would stand with President Nixon on Vietnam and economic issues.
Ottinger went to shake the hands of his staff.
When the revels in the Waldorf-Astoria were at an end, and all but the last of the confetti had been tidied away, James Buckley and his immediate family retired to their suite.
The next day, the Buckleys awoke early. The press entered their room, and the family was photographed sitting together around the coffee table, reading cover stories about James’s victory. One of his sons threw his hands into the air, making twin V-for-Victory signs.
The senator-elect quickly pushed the boy’s hands back to his sides.
After that, James Buckley gave a press conference from the ballroom. He announced his interest in embodying what he took to be the values of the Republican Party in every state but New York and encouraging a “new Federalism” that shifted responsibility to the states. Despite the scale of excitement at the previous night’s party, he now emphasized his role as a normal civil servant.
“I’m going to Washington to do a job,” he said.
A single balloon with his name on it hung in the air at waist height near him on stage, some of its buoyancy from the night before having evaporated.
It was grey out as Charles Goodell packed to leave his hotel. At Ottinger’s headquarters at the Commodore, a campaign poster on the wall said, “It’s easy to promise, but tough to deliver.”
In newsrooms throughout the city, journalists tapped out opinion pieces for the next day’s press. One, titled “The Shame of New York,” expressed a gloomy, hangover-like reckoning with what Buckley’s election said about the soul of the state. James Buckley would have a copy framed.
Across the nation, those who had run in the other Senate races reveled or recuperated as the occasion called for it. Nixon went on the record as being pleased that his party had not lost so many seats as was usual for an off year election, but nursed a private grievance that the legislative branch remained congested with enemies.
After the Waldorf Astoria press conference, the Buckleys packed and drove back to Sharon, Connecticut where they kept their regular 6:30 p.m. observance of dinnertime.
Years later, James’s daughter Priscilla would remember that though the family was happy for their father’s success, if still dazed by it, the children were given a talk at the table that was solemn and earnest:
“When your father is a senator, lots of things are going to be different,” they were told. “And this doesn’t make you any better – any more important people than you were before the election. It doesn’t give you any special rights or privileges or anything else. You are exactly the people you were before but what this is also going to do is put you in the spotlight a whole lot more. You have to be more exemplary than ever.”
After this, the book concludes with a coda about Buckley’s preparation for his job in the Senate, his time in office, and how his campaign entered the conservative canon and represented the divisive atmosphere surrounding conservative races and the transformation of the Republican party in years to come.