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The Unplanned Admirable Life of James Buckley

By Gerald and Natalie Sirkin

Gerald and Natalie Sirkin have appeared in this space several times.

It is time we review a book that offers hope for a civil and intelligent future for the United States. Such a book is not easy to find, but we have one: James L. Buckley’s Gleanings from an Unplanned Life, an Annotated Oral History ( Wilmington , Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006, pp. 308, $25). A country that can produce a man like James L. Buckley and see him rise to an important position in public life must have some chance of recovering from its present social squalor.

As a member of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Judge Buckley was interviewed for the program of the Historical Society of D. C. to record oral histories of the judges. His book is the transcript of the interviews with his notes to clarify and amplify.

Judge Buckley called his life “unplanned.” Actually he had plans. The point is that nothing went according to plan, beginning with birth in an elevator in a New York City hospital. He had planned to be a country lawyer, practicing in his home town of Sharon . However, while working at Wiggin & Dana, a law firm in New Haven, to get experience, he yielded to his father’s call for help in the family business. For 17 years, he traveled to many countries in Asia and Latin America working with the oil and gas exploration companies serviced by his father’s business.

In 1968 came his unplanned entry into politics. When the interviewer asked how he became a candidate for the U.S. Senate, he answered, “You may have heard that I have an exotic brother.”

“Exotic” was well chosen for William Buckley, founder and long-time editor of the National Review. The Conservative Party of New York was organized to exert conservative influence on New York politicians the way the Liberal Party exerted a liberal influence. It needed a candidate for Mayor of New York City. Bill Buckley was persuaded that it was his duty to run. He ran a witty, informative campaign which journalists and political buffs loved. When asked what he would do if he won, he answered, “Demand a recount.”

Three years later, the New York Conservative Party needed a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Bill Buckley persuaded brother James it was his duty to run. Reluctantly he agreed.

James Buckley ran against Republican Jacob Javits and Democrat Paul O’Dwyer with very little financial support. He lost but did astonishingly well, getting twice as many votes as any third-party candidate ever got in New York .

In the next Senate election in 1970, he ran against Republican Charles Goodell and Democrat David Ottinger. Volunteers, especially college students, flocked to help his campaign. Goodell and Ottinger faded, and third-party candidate Buckley scored an amazing victory. Journalists were horrified that a conservative could be elected. Buckley quotes with amusement a piece in Newsday titled “The Shame of New York” which shows the climate of opinion about conservatives at that time: “It is difficult to be a gracious loser when you are branded before the nation as all New Yorkers are today with the letter C for Conservative on your forehead.”

Buckley’s work in the Senate was a refreshing effort to improve the efficiency and honesty of government. An outstanding example was his amendment to index income tax rates, that is, to adjust them to offset the effect of inflation. Inflation pushed taxpayers into higher tax brackets--a stealthy tax increase. His amendment went nowhere. As one Senator pointed out, the inflation-push had the “advantage” of increasing taxes without requiring Congress to vote for it. After Buckley left the Senate, his persistence paid off. The indexing idea took root and was adopted. He did not have success with a second major idea, that the workload of the Senate was too heavy to permit Senators to do their job well. (Today it is even heavier.)

One of Buckley’s correctives was a revival of federalism. Leave to the states all business in which there is no federal interest. He was constantly against expanding the federal role in public education. The Buckley Amendment to an education bill gave parents the right to see the education records of their children in schools that received federal funds. He voted for his Amendment but against the bill to which it was attached on the ground that public education is a state and local, not a federal, function. He was an active participant in debates on defense, foreign policy, and the environment (on which he was a strong but sensible supporter).

In 1976 Buckley lost a close contest with Patrick Moynihan, a popular figure and a tough opponent. Four years later, he lost a Senate race against Christopher Dodd in Connecticut, an unhealthy locale for a conservative. (In the spirit of full disclosure, we note that one of the writers of this column collected a petition urging him to run.)

When Ronald Reagan was elected president, Buckley was offered a position in the State Department as Under Secretary for Security Assistance. Among his interesting observations was the difference between American and European mindsets. It was during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Our European allies were providing the Soviets with credits at “bargain basement rates” enabling them to acquire strategically sensitive equipment. Economic gain was more important to the Europeans than national security. Though a skilled negotiator, Buckley could not change their minds.

Following his service in the State Department, he became president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which ran two radios to Soviet satellite countries and the Soviet Union, bringing them news the U.S.S.R. was suppressing. Several years later, President Reagan nominated him to the Circuit Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia.

Buckley’s strength of character in his determination to do right regardless of consequences to himself, was demonstrated in the Watergate crisis. Having decided that President Nixon could no longer function as leader, Buckley called a press conference to urge that he resign. That action brought down upon him a flood of criticism and abuse from party loyalists. In due time his integrity earned him their admiration.

The Washingtonian magazine of June, 1996, wrote that James Buckley “has emerged by consensus of liberals and conservatives alike as the finest appellate judge” on the D.C. Circuit. With the modesty that is one of his most conspicuous traits, he denies the magazine’s assertion but concedes that “it did confirm that I approached my job as a judge and not as an ideologue.”

Gerald and Natalie Sirkin


Don Pesci said…
That is an excellent review of the book. Time washes over everything and blunts its sharper edges, but I am old enough to remember William F. Buckley Jr., on Firing Line and through National Review – still the best conservative journal of opinion in the country, although Bill is retired now. The Buckley’s – including brother Jim – have left us an authentic legacy, some of it entombed in this book. Their living legacy is the one the Sirkins touch upon in their review. The Buckley family is the repository of a civility that is fast disappearing. I’ve always thought, having met him several times, that Bill could best be understood as a Southern gentleman whose personality was flavored with Yankee accents. Like Joseph Conrad, Bill’s first language was not English but Spanish, and the Buckley’s had roots in one of the Carolinas – I forget which – as well as in Connecticut. The impish wit that is a true note of the clan is the result of an upbringing, in a very large Irish family that revels in the blood of Shaw and Singe rolling in its veins. Christopher Buckley, Bill’s son, is a roar. But there is something else that typifies the Buckleys: This will surprise everyone – modesty. Bill’s secret weapon is his modesty, something he shares with his brother Jim. That is the true underlying spring of powerful friendships and a life lived, out in the open, in the realm of ideas. The Buckleys are loved because they are loveable.
Anonymous said…
"The Buckleys are loved because they are lovable."


James B got lot and lots of college students' help in his campaign. They loved him, because he was lovable.

The book adds things we did not know. For many years he was a negotiator, and then and subsequently in the Senate he was remarkably successful.
Anonymous said…
Here is his website, where we have included your review. Thank you.
-Wendy Buckley

James L. Buckley, Gleanings from an Unplanned Life, Official Website

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