Fifty years ago, the nation’s political atmosphere was as charged as it is today. Protests turned to violence. Financially insecure working-class folks felt threatened by racial riots and rising crime. A controversial “law and order” president, Richard Nixon, appealed to the “Silent Majority” to oppose radical leftists.
The political race that epitomized the nation’s mood in 1970 took place in New York and catapulted conservative James L. Buckley into the US Senate seat previously held by Robert F. Kennedy.
After Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed Republican Rep. Charles Goodell to fill the vacancy. Goodell was a moderate, but in the Senate he tacked hard to the left.
New York Conservative Party leaders, infuriated with Goodell, saw an opportunity to assemble a victorious coalition of disgruntled Republicans and middle-class Democrats to unseat him. To achieve that, they recruited James L. Buckley to be the party’s standard bearer.
Born in 1923, Jim Buckley, brother of conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., served in the Navy in World War II and received his bachelor and law degrees from Yale. He got his first taste of politics in 1965 when he served as campaign manager for brother Bill’s run for mayor on the Conservative line against liberal Republican John Lindsay.
Three years later, Jim agreed to be the party’s Senate candidate against liberal Republican incumbent Jacob Javits, because he believed “strongly in the principles — the Republican principles — which among the parties in New York state these days the Conservative Party alone espouses.”
Buckley lost that 1968 race, but his showing rocked the political establishment. With 1,139,500 votes, he outpolled both Javits and Democrat Paul O’Dwyer in numerous blue-collar neighborhoods.
That base vote, plus a growing number of Nixon Democrats, convinced him he could beat Goodell and Democrat Richard Ottinger in 1970.
As the Buckley campaign picked up steam, scores of Republican officials deserted Goodell. In Washington, Nixon told aides “We are dropping Goodell over the side.”
On Oct. 10, Vice President Spiro Agnew came to New York and hammered Goodell as the “Christine Jorgenson of the Republican Party,” referring to the first American who went to Denmark for a sex-change operation.
On Election Night, Buckley supporters gathered in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria to await the results. By midnight, it became evident Buckley would win, with 40 percent of the votes.
Buckley told his followers that his “victory in New York would telegraph across the country the message that Americans want a new course, want new politics, and I am the voice of that new politics.”
In the Senate, he introduced the “Human Life” amendment to counter the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. He was the first senator to call for Richard Nixon to resign. And he was a voice of sanity during the city’s fiscal crisis, endorsing federal loans to ease the financial pressure.
When he sought re-election in 1976, Buckley was expected to beat the likely Democratic candidate, the loquacious Bella Abzug (the AOC of that time.) However, in the primary, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a last-minute entry, upset Abzug, 36 percent to 35 percent.
Back in those days, two Irish Catholics running meant Buckley and Moynihan would split the blue-collar Catholic vote. As a result, the man Bill Buckley called the “sainted junior senator from New York” went down to defeat.
Jim Buckley did return to public service: In 1981, President Ronald Reagan tapped him to serve as undersecretary of state and later as president of Radio Free Europe. In December 1985, Buckley was confirmed as a judge of the US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit. He served until his retirement in 2000.
Buckley’s election to the Senate 50 years ago helped form the coalition that elected Reagan in 1980 and put Donald Trump over the top in 2016. Today, at age 97, he can look back with pride knowing he served his nation and the conservative cause well in all three branches of the federal government.
George J. Marlin is the author of “Fighting the Good Fight: A History of the New York Conservative Party.” His latest is “Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.”