Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Unmaking of a Mayor, by William F. Buckley, Jr.

The Unmaking of a Mayor is the story of the unique campaign of William F. Buckley, Jr. for New York City Mayor in 1965. At this point in his life, the 39-year-old Buckley had founded National Review, published six books (including God and Man at Yale), had a syndicated column in hundreds of newspapers across the country, run the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement, and had energized the conservative wing of the Republican party to a point that it nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. With this long list of accomplishments, why would he run for mayor? That's one of the questions this book answers.

In the mid-1960's, many people thought New York City was ungovernable, broken, and on an unreversible course of decline. Many of the city's problems will sound familiar with those of us who remember the period before Rudy Giuliani's election in 1993. Buckley opens the book with an account of the political system of New York, with its intricate third party laws, and follows on with a history of the previous 30 years of governance. Then he delves into what John V. Lindsay, the liberal congressman and presumptive GOP nominee, and Bill Buckley were doing in the spring of 1965.

It is customary to call any third party candidate "unserious" because they have no legitimate shot of winning and they typically have a few kook positions.  Buckley was under no illusions of his chance at winning. In a famous exchange from the campaign, a reporter asked him what would be the first thing he'd do if he was elected. Buckley quipped, "Demand a recount."  But reading his position papers, reprinted in total with reactions from the press and the other candidates, shows he really thought through the problems facing New York.

You don't have to agree with all of his proposals, but the position papers were a very compelling and thought-provoking part of the book to read. The typical politician's position papers are vague, gauzy pieces of fluff that aren't worth the paper they're printed on.  Candidate Smith promises to balance the budget by eliminating waste and closing loopholes. But Buckley's papers actually offered concrete solutions.  Bad Traffic? Reserve one lane in the Holland and Lincoln tunnels for buses. Allow delivery trucks to only park on odd-numbered streets on Mondays and Wednesdays and even-numbered streets on Tuesdays and Fridays. Pollution?  Convert city buses to liquefied petroleum gas. Add control devices to city vehicles to reduce emissions. Modernize municipal incinerators.

But the position papers also reveal some of the oddities associated with third party candidates. Buckley's traffic proposal included a Bikeway to travel above Second Avenue from 125th Street to 1st Street. His proposal for the drug problem included moving addicts to special housing so they don't get others addicted to narcotics. His affordable housing platform had something similar.  Of course, twenty years after World War II, his opponents pounced on these relocation ideas as "concentration camps".

So why did Buckley run? Part of it was to counter the leftward lurch of the Republican party under the leadership of Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller. Many people were predicting that Lindsay would be the GOP standard bearer in 1968 or 1972 if he became mayor. The other reason was because he saw Lindsay and Abe Beame, the Democratic nominee, as mealy mouthed politicians who would throw bromides at each other and not discuss the things that were actually wrong with New York City.

Unmaking of a Mayor is a bracing, sometimes hilarious, account of the race and the personalities involved. It shows the difference between career politicians and those with something to say about government. Sometimes I wish people would take more risks and speak plainly about the issues as Buckley did. It's well worth the read for anyone interested in political history, New York history, and public policy.

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