This column was published days after James L. Buckley, brother of our founder, was elected as a United States senator from New York, the Conservative-party candidate winning a three-way race over Republican incumbent Charles Goodell and Democratic challenger, Congressman Richard Ottinger. We republish this as part of National Review’s Fall 2017 #30DaysHathBucktember webathon, to which we encourage you to donate.
November 7, 1970
By William F. Buckley Jr.
On sober second thought, I welcome the election of James L. Buckley as Senator from New York, and marvel at the surprises and the paradoxes that proved what John Aldridge calls the keen fatality of life: Mr. Buckley (I must get used to calling him that) will fill, for a few weeks until his own term begins, the seat won in 1964 by the late Robert F. Kennedy. Concerning the election and the meaning of it, there is much that could be said. But, for the time being, a couple of points:
1. The political meaning of the election is being challenged by those who point out that Mr. Buckley took less than one half the vote. They go further and say that if Senator Goodell had dropped out of the race, Ottinger would have beaten Buckley. One CBS reporter, asked how they would have gone if Goodell had dropped out, said that a cross-sample of Goodell voters indicated 80% to Ottinger, 20% to Buckley. If that had been the case, Ottinger would have won easily, 56 to 44. But such analyses are too schematic. And can be made to lead to contrary results.
Surely a part of the miracle of that election is the third-party aspect of, What is it worth to have the backing of a major party? Granted, Buckley had one part of what comes with major party backing: he had the tacit endorsement of President Nixon. And he had a half dozen endorsements from well- though not critically- situated Republicans. The majority of the Republican Congressional delegation went dutifully for Goodall. So did the Governer (and Rockefeller as Governor is far more influential with his own party than most governors). Republican senators streamed up from Washington to push for their colleague. Even Senator Tower, whose personal sympathies were obvious, made the dutiful endorsement in his capacity as campaign chairman for the Republican senators. By no means last, is the advantage of the position on the ballot. “Vote Straight A,” Rockefeller campaigned, arm in arm with Goodell during the last day. And a lot of people did, cutting Buckley’s plurality, as projected in the polls, by almost one-half.
Let the question be moot. But resist the temptation to discount the result as freakish, because the arguments are by no means conclusive. As for the future, I recommended in connection with the mayoralty race a year ago that there should be a run-off election in three-way races in which the winner fails to achieve a majority. I agree that that reform should be adopted even if it involves a contest in which the initial winner is related to me.
2. I intend from time to time to recall some of the rhetoric of the closing days of this campaign. Very instructive. For instance Miss Harriet Van Horne, the syndicated columnist: “If this election goes as president Nixon would like it to go, the long trail will soon be entering a dark tunnel. The Omnibus Crime Bill . . . will not curb crime but it will drastically curtail freedom. It wipes out in one terrible blow the major guarantees of the Bill of Rights. It gives J. Edgar Hoover and John Mitchell the kind of authority enjoyed by Gestapo chiefs and hanging judges. . . . We shall all be living (a nightmare) as the long train winds through the dark tunnel.” I don’t remember the rest of Miss Van Horne’s column, but I think she spent it bemoaning the excesses of Spiro Agnew’s rhetoric.
Why are they all so melancholy? All that the New York voters wanted was one senator. If they can have the Village Voice and the New York Times, can’t we have a senator? And if his election causes a mass exodus from New York – aren’t they always saying that New York is overcrowded? And anyway, the liberals out in California clearly need help, so wouldn’t it be fair if we gave California a few of ours? Some years ago the New York Times set out to colonize California with a local edition of the Times. But it turned out that absentee management doesn’t work. Why not try again, and this time send management out there to supervise the operation?
Which reminds me, the New York Times’ editorial a week ago spoke about Buckley voters as “nightriders” who want to assassinate freedoms. Now I appeal to the higher intelligence of Harriet Van Horne, how can nightriders live in tunnels? Really, the voices of moderation ought to concert their metaphors. If you think it’s easy to have one foot in the tunnel and the other foot in the stirrup of a horse, well, you are the forces of obscurantism.