Politics & Policy

The Unexpurgated Jim Buckley

Former US Senator, Jim Buckley (R-NY) speaks to attendees about federalism during the 2019 National Review Ideas Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C. on March 29, 2019.
James Buckley will receive the Buckley Prize at NRI’s Gala on Monday night.

Readers of these pages have heard much about James Lane Buckley’s remarkable performances as senator, senior U.S. diplomat, and federal judge. More than three decades ago, I took to introducing him on public occasions as “America’s most distinguished public servant since John Quincy Adams.” I did so, of course, to elicit the famously beet-red JLB blush, but discontinued the practice when, following his extraordinary service on the D.C. Court of Appeals, it lost all force as hilarious overstatement. Jim’s contributions to public life have been numerous, consequential and, considered in the round, manifestly prize-worthy. Let me add here a few words about how he has conducted his private life, a subject on which I am encyclopedically informed.

One day in the Winter of 1975, I was summoned to the CEO’s office at the Buckley oil company. I was there to see John Buckley, the oldest of the four brothers, who had assumed a patriarchal role following the death of their father, William F. Buckley Sr. Where Jim was the buttoned-up lawyer and Bill the public controversialist and Reid the colorful expat, John was all business. He had taken on two heavy responsibilities and he discharged them both with pace and purpose. He oversaw the far-flung Buckley business interests, even as he attended the personal interests of the fissiparous family — the siblings, the spouses, and the grandchildren, of whom, ultimately, there would be 50.

As was his custom, John told me what was on his mind. He was concerned about Jim’s upcoming race for reelection to the Senate. He thought that Jim and his staff were ill-prepared for the 1976 campaign. He thought they had no idea how desperately the Democrats wanted Jim’s seat, no idea what the Democrats would be ready to throw at Jim.

John paused, and then popped the question. Would I be willing to put together an oppo-research report on Jim?

I squirmed.

Jim was then 52 years old. He had served in the wartime Navy. He had worked fringy deals in the oil patch. He had spent long stretches in markets that could not be said to have “emerged” comprehensively. He had been around long enough, that is, to have compiled at least the normal catalogue of personal indiscretions. Jim was by that time a good friend of mine and there are things you don’t really want to know about your good friends.

But I shared some of John’s concerns, as well. Jim had an excellent Senate staff, but they were policy guys, think-tank guys. They might be able to handle themselves in a New York street fight, but that would probably not be the way to bet. And I had to agree with John that it would be prudent to know as much about Jim as the Democrats already knew about him. I accepted the assignment.

In each of the key cities — New York, Washington, and Albany — I retained a gumshoe. In each case, I selected the roughest, leftiest piece of work I could find. I told them I was looking not just for the public-record stuff — DUIs, tax liens, domestic disputes, and the like. I wanted the raw file, too — rumor, bar talk, the kitchen sink. You could say that, much like Christopher Steele, I wanted the unverified and salacious stuff. My gumshoes grunted their assent and began to build the file.

On a drizzly Spring day, I drove up to Sharon to report to the family council. We convened in the garden room at Great Elm, a beautifully appointed conservatory overlooking a broad backyard that rolled down to a swimming pool and a tennis court. John brought the meeting to order after gently dismissing his mother. Aloise Josephine Antonia Steiner Buckley, a gracious daughter of the Old South, was distressed by criticism of her children. Any negativity directed toward her beloved Jimmy might have caused her to faint dead away.

Indulging a theatrical impulse, I dropped the three-inch-thick file on the tea table with a gratifying thud. John, who was almost as impatient as his kid brother Bill, eyed the file warily, fearful perhaps that I was primed for a marathon recitation of dark family episodes. John rapped the table and barked preemptively: “Neal, perhaps you could summarize your findings for us.” I replied that I could do so in a single sentence, which went, verbatim: “Jimmy’s criminal career seems to have peaked with the allegation, later refuted, that he had torn one of those tags off a mattress.” I remember those words only because Reid, in wonder, played them back to me every time I ran into him over the next 20-some years. We both knew that Reid’s file would have been considerably more entertaining.

I submit this judgment as the occasional author and frequent consumer of oppo-research for more than a half-century: Jim Buckley’s file was the single most boring document ever produced in the long and mud-speckled history of political barrel-scraping. There were no guns, no drugs, no funny money, no girls, no boys, no nothing. The only memorable datum in 300 pages of chaff was the fact that, not counting his brothers, Jim Buckley had stood up as best man for five different bridegrooms.

Jim Buckley is that rarest of all public figures. He is as good as he looks.

Congratulations to you, Jim, on winning the Buckley Prize. I can report authoritatively, on the basis of five decades worth of family focus-grouping, that you would have been the unanimous first choice of your siblings. Your mother, as you know, treasured the secret ballot.

Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.

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