Politics & Policy

The Lion in Winter

James Buckley (right) with brother William F. Buckley in New York City on election night, November 3, 1970.
James L. Buckley, a pioneer in conservative thought and politics, looks back over an eventful life.

In the beautiful landscape of northwestern Connecticut, far from the madding crowd, lives James Lane Buckley, the 95-year-old elder brother of William F. Buckley Jr. and founder of the conservative movement.

That is not a title that political historians often bestow on James. The honor is often reserved for Bill, the tireless apostle behind National Review and Firing Line, whose influence in forming the American Right is incalculable. Yet the movement that nominated Barry Goldwater for the presidency in 1964 won its first electoral victory in 1970, when Jim Buckley was elected U.S. senator from New York on the Conservative ticket in a three-way race. Though the last third-party candidate elected to Congress, he played a vital role in turning the GOP into a party that could elect Ronald Reagan.

His current residence stands in the shadow of Great Elm, the elegant house bought by his father, William F. Buckley Sr., in 1923. It took its name from the largest such tree in Connecticut, which governed the 46-acre estate until it fell victim to Dutch elm disease. When the family moved in, Jim was a few months old, preceded in birth by Aloïse, John, and Priscilla, while Jane, William, Patricia, Reid, Maureen, and Carol were yet to come.

The Buckleys acquired varying degrees of polyglotism by virtue of having lived in foreign locales. William Sr. — Will, in contradistinction to junior Bill — was the son of John, a Texas sheriff, so he grew up speaking Spanish as well as English. Jim likewise learned English and Spanish simultaneously, the latter with the help of the children’s Mexican nurse. Then in Paris, where he first attended school, he absorbed French, bringing him up to multilingual parity with his mother and siblings.

“My DNA,” James says, however, “is not well disposed for languages, so unfortunately I’ve forgotten how to speak anything but English.” He recalls visiting Paris as an adult with his sister Aloïse, who was chattering away in French with a few women in a small shop. When they heard her make an aside to Buckley, they asked her where she had learned her English. “She was that good,” he says, still ruefully impressed.

His mother, also Aloïse, came from the Swiss Steiner family of New Orleans. Though the public usually thinks of the Buckleys as Irish Catholic, Jim reports that as children they were far more conscious of their Swiss background.

“We thought of ourselves as ‘melting pot.’” He furrows his brow. “Apparently that’s gone out of fashion.”

Buckley was born, he confesses, with “zero athletic ability,” so he spent his youth wandering through the forest to watch birds. Sharon, Conn., proved a fine place for cultivating a fondness for the outdoors, and so attached is he to that corner of the New England countryside that he has lived there most of his life. He has maintained a mild distaste for cities, especially New York — the crowds, the traffic, the noise, everything.

“I knew that by living here I’d be giving up top opera, top plays,” but these he readily sacrificed for tranquility. “I’m a country boy.”

In 1940, when he was 17, he matriculated at Yale, as would all the Buckley boys. For a short time, however, that was in doubt, for he had considered going to Harvard instead. He even took an extra year of Latin in high school so that he could get into Harvard, which required students to have read much of Cicero in addition to the Caesar required by Yale. “That was the most difficult work I had to do,” says Buckley, “considering my problems with foreign languages.”

In the end the decision came down to the visits he made to the two campuses: His brother John was already at New Haven and could show him the ins and outs, whereas his introduction to Cambridge was in the hands of a stranger.

As an undergraduate Buckley studied English, there being no major by which to formalize his knowledge of natural history since biology had been reduced to “looking through microscopes.” Years later he thought he ought to have studied American history. He occupied his free time mostly by serving as an editor at the Yale Daily News, which is perhaps where he refined his rather matter-of-fact style of writing and speaking. Did he join the News because of an early interest in politics or a love of journalism, for instance? No: “Because it was fun.”

In fact, he discerned no political ambitions in either himself or his classmates, who included John Lindsay, his brother’s future adversary in the 1965 New York mayoral race. The atmosphere was dominated by the Second World War. Yale was running an accelerated schedule, three semesters per year, and awarding degrees after seven semesters instead of the usual eight. Buckley decided to enlist in the Navy rather than wait to be drafted, so he spent his last semester in uniform. He graduated in October 1943 and went to the South Pacific in April 1944 aboard the USS LST 1013, where he spent all but five nights of the next two years. Though the vessel busied itself mostly with transporting troops and supplies to various outposts, it assisted in the invasions of Leyte, Lingayen Gulf, and Okinawa.

After his discharge in 1946, Buckley returned to Sharon, as he always has, and began to apply to law schools, all of which were heavily backlogged with GIs. Harvard, Columbia, and Virginia accepted him, but not his beloved Yale, so he studied for a semester at Columbia before effecting a transfer to New Haven. “I graduated,” he remarks with satisfaction, “smack in the middle of a class to which I was not admitted.” He nonetheless resisted the urge to point out that fact to Yale’s admissions committee.

“I wanted to be a country lawyer in Sharon.” That was Buckley’s reason for attending law school, but what came to pass was precisely the opposite. After a few years at the New Haven firm Wiggin & Dana, where he spent most of his time on clerical tasks that he found intensely boring — though he denies any sympathy with anti-clericalism — he left legal practice to assist with the family’s oil-exploration company.

Will Buckley, taking advantage of his Spanish, had spent time in Mexico, first as a lawyer representing American and European oil companies and then as president of his own company. Eventually he shifted his focus entirely to oil exploration (i.e., finding the black gold for firms such as Standard Oil rather than drilling it himself), returned to the United States, and founded Catawba Corporation, which provided financial services to independent oil companies abroad. It was Catawba that Jim Buckley joined upon leaving private practice, and he proved highly valuable for his legal training. He was tasked with scouting potential exploration sites across the world: Israel, Libya, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Australia. Such extensive travel was a far cry from the peaceful life of a rural lawyer, but the country boy relished it.

“I enjoyed it immensely,” Buckley says, waving away any suspicion of paradox. “It was a great challenge, always dealing with crises.”

Nevertheless his home remained all the while in Sharon, leaving him the same two-and-a-half-hour train commute that his father had made weekly into the New York office when his son was a small boy.

At this stage the end of his private life was fast approaching. His first foray into politics was as manager of Bill’s 1965 campaign for mayor of New York City, a post he was offered unexpectedly and accepted reluctantly. “Bill called me totally out of the blue,” he recalls. “I knew nothing about campaigning, and I was working a zillion hours a week, but he assured me he couldn’t win so it wouldn’t take up much time.”

New York politics, both city and state, were in that day at once simple and complex. The Democratic and Republican parties were often indistinguishable, for the latter was dominated by centrists such as Governor Nelson Rockefeller and mayoral nominee John Lindsay. There existed two ancillary parties, Liberal and Conservative, whose aims were not so much to win elections as to influence the policies and positions of the two major parties. The Conservatives’ tack in 1965, therefore, was to gauge how many Goldwater-style, solidly conservative voters could be found in New York City. Bill Buckley finished a distant third, but the campaign had contributed a good deal to reminding New Yorkers that their choice in elections did not have to be always between nearly identical liberals.

When, in 1968, Senator Jacob Javits, another Rockefeller Republican, came up for reelection, the Conservative party needed a candidate. Bill, already having served his “jury duty” for the cause, made another surprise phone call to his brother. After a week, once he had been assured that he had no chance of winning, Jim agreed to run.

“It had never occurred to me to run for public office.” That is a line one hears from politicians everywhere, but from Buckley it is plainly sincere. “Yet I was intrigued to see how I would do in a debate.” Playing the same role that his brother had played three years earlier — similar conservative ideas, anyway, albeit from wildly different personalities — he managed on a paltry budget of $180,000 to garner more than a million votes, 17 percent of the total. This was an encouraging sign, a significant improvement over Goldwater’s and Bill’s showings, but the conservative movement again fell short of a major electoral success.

So Buckley returned to the oil business, and the United States returned to chaos. The domestic conflict over the Vietnam War was raging, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated, rioting students occupied Berkeley and Columbia, and the tumultuous presidential election left the country sharply divided. On a scouting mission in Australia in 1969, Buckley encountered expatriate Americans who thought the United States had had it.

The other senator from New York, Republican Charles Goodell — whom Rockefeller had appointed to fill Kennedy’s seat — came up for election in 1970, and the Conservative party came calling one more time. “I was happy to run,” says Buckley, a sternness detectable in his voice, “provided that there was a chance of winning. I wasn’t going to do it for the exercise again.”

As it turned out, voters across the state had tired of the behavior of the Sixties activists and left-wingers, whom they considered at times un-American. “They didn’t like flag-burning, and they continued to support the war in Vietnam.” Buckley here gives a history lesson to a forgetful country. “The firemen’s union offered its endorsement. Most people in those days were not radicals; even most Democrats were firmly patriotic.”

It was another three-man race, but it did not play out the way most modern three-way elections do. The general rule nowadays is that if two right-leaning candidates run against a Democrat, the Democrat will win because his opponents will split the conservative vote. In 1970, though, the electoral lines fell differently. Goodell instead split the liberal vote with Richard Ottinger, the Democratic nominee, leaving Buckley the winner with a plurality of 39 percent.

But Buckley is adamant on the following point: “I am confident that I represented a majority of the sentiment in New York at that time.” In other words, he is convinced he did not win merely because Goodell and Ottinger spoiled each other’s chances.

“The reason Goodell didn’t withdraw from the race,” he explains, “is that he didn’t want his more conservative supporters to come over to me. There were many conservative Republicans who disagreed with the liberal establishment but were afraid to cross party lines.”

So the New York election of November 3, 1970, became the conservative event of the decade. Finally the Right, lashed together by the other Buckley, had won a race and proved that its ideas were viable even in one of the most liberal states in the Union. Young Americans for Freedom — an organization whose Sharon Statement had been drafted and signed in 1960 in the great Buckley house — had mobilized the college students and twentysomethings who wanted nothing to do with Tom Hayden and the New Left. The movement brimmed with optimism, which buoyed the senator-elect as he prepared to go to a Washington that he knew would oppose him.

He was heartened, however, by President Nixon’s State of the Union Address in 1971, which emphasized the importance of federalism, an issue near to Buckley’s own heart.

“I voted more often with southern Democrats than with New England Republicans because of the former’s support of small government.” For many people, the term “small government” in association with the South has a racist connotation, but Buckley was motivated purely by a respect for clear constitutional principles.

Where Nixon failed egregiously was in his imposition of wage and price controls in 1971 to combat rising inflation. “It was outrageous. One of the most unconservative things you could do.”

A firm commitment to free markets was an important part of the new Republican coalition. Buckley’s importation of his interest in natural history and ecology into his Senate tenure, on the other hand, might strike today’s Republicans as a vestige of hippyism.

“Nixon established the EPA in 1970, but I had actually proposed it during my ’68 campaign,” notes Buckley. He devoted considerable effort to the major revisions to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts that would pass in 1977. His approach to environmentalism has always been guided by the principle that benefits should exceed costs, and ignorance of that principle exists on both sides.

“Environmentalism has been taken over by tree-huggers who want to return us to 1491,” Buckley says through a chuckle. “But pollution in the ’70s was creating huge dollars-and-cents costs that Republicans were simply not aware of.”

He lasted in the Senate only one term, defeated in his 1976 reelection bid by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who would hold the seat until his retirement and succession by Hillary Clinton in 2001. Nonetheless, six years was long enough to convince him that congressional term limits were necessary to curtail politicians’ self-interested political maneuvering.

“Service in Congress has turned into a career rather than a privilege.” This offense against respect for the public makes Buckley indignant. “Even of the Great Triumvirate of the Senate, only Webster served three terms, and there are very few Websters.”

Early in the Reagan administration he served as undersecretary of state. Then, in 1982, Reagan appointed him president of Radio Free Europe, a “remarkable program of meaningful information.” It brought only news to the residents of Communist countries whose governments controlled the news media. Unlike Voice of America, a program that advertised the greatness of the United States, RFE was just the facts.

“We had strict rules about factual reporting. It is one of those cases when the truth is itself a weapon against an oppressive regime.”

Reagan nominated him in 1985 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which made him one of only about 30 people in history to serve in all three branches of the federal government.

“As a judge I had totally different responsibilities than I had in the Senate, obviously,” Buckley says. On the subject of holding offices in the three branches, he always speaks knowing that many people have forgotten that these constitutional differences exist. “The job of a judge is to find out what the law is, not what you’d like it to be.”

He is hopeful that if President Trump’s nominee Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed, the Supreme Court will begin to return to that conception of the judiciary. Though many on the left, having been accused of judicial activism themselves, will call such a shift conservative judicial activism, in fact it is faithfulness to the Constitution.

“We see ‘activism’ defined in totally conflicting senses. If doing your job properly is activism, we want a lot of activists.”

Despite his experience and expertise, however, he humbly admits his legal knowledge is far from infinite, and he is too honest to fudge an answer to a difficult question: What does he think about the effect on federalism of the nationalization of citizenship under the 14th Amendment?

“I’ve never given it any thought,” he says, smiling.

After his retirement in 2000, he returned full-time to his present house in Sharon. He has always been a slow reader, but he occupies his time with books on American history, possibly his favorite indoor subject. He is a slow writer also, so he is proud of having published four books. The most recent, published in 2014, is Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering Their People, which was sent to every member of Congress as an encouragement to return to federalist principles.

His life, though decorated, has always been essentially simple. Commitment to the Catholic faith, the Constitution, and the Buckley family have sufficed to guide him through 95 years. This simplicity, which extends even to the kitchen — “If it’s not microwaveable, I don’t eat it” — conceals the lion heart of a devoted public servant. The conservative movement has long and rightly revered one Buckley, but perhaps it should adopt a two-man team from which to draw inspiration: Bill the swashbuckling polemicist and Jim the quiet statesman.

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