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The Unmaking of a Mayor


The following is the prologue from William F. Buckley's now-classic memoir of his campaign for mayor of New York City, The Unmaking of a Mayor, just reissued in a fiftieth-anniversary "deluxe edition."

(A self-interview, delivered before the National Press Club, Washington, D.C., August 4, 1965)

Q. Mr. Buckley, why are you running for Mayor of New York?
A. Because nobody else is who matters.

Q. What do you mean, “who matters”?
A. Who matters to New York. New York is a city in crisis, and all the candidates agree it is a city in crisis. But no other candidate proposes to do anything about that crisis.

Q. What is it that distinguishes you from these other candidates? Why should only great big brave you consent to run on a program that would really liberate New York, while the other candidates do not?
A. Because the other candidates feel they cannot cope with the legacy of New York politics. That legacy requires the satisfaction of voting blocs, with special attention given to the voting bloc or blocs most fractious at any given election period. But to satisfy voting blocs increasingly requires dissatisfying the constituent members of those same voting blocs in their private capacities. However, since it is more dangerous to dissatisfy organized blocs of voters than individual voters—even if they happen to be members of voting blocs—political candidates in New York address their appeals to the bloc rather than to the individual.

Q. Would you mind being specific?
A. As far as New York politicians are concerned, a New Yorker is an Irishman, an Italian, or a Negro; he is a union member or a white collar worker; a welfare recipient or a city employee; a Catholic or a Protestant or a Jew; a taxi driver or a taxi owner; a merchant or a policeman. The problem is to weigh the voting strength of all the categories and formulate a program that least dissatisfies the least crowded and least powerful categories: and the victory is supposed to go to the most successful bloc Benthamite in the race.

Q. What’s the matter with that?
A. What is the matter with it is that New York is reaching the point where it faces the marginal disutility of bloc satisfaction. The race to satisfy the bloc finally ends in dissatisfying even the individual members of that same bloc. If, for instance, you give taxi owners the right to limit the number of taxis available in the city, people who need taxis to get from where they are to where they want to go can’t find taxis when they most want them. If you allow truck drivers to double-park because it is convenient to them and to the merchants whose goods they are unloading, traffic is snarled and taxi drivers can’t move fast enough to make a decent living. When the traffic is snarled, people stay away from the city and the merchants lose money. If the merchants lose money they want to automate in order to save costs. If the unions don’t let them automate they leave the city. When they leave the city there are fewer people to pay taxes to city officials and to the unemployed. (The unemployed aren’t allowed to drive taxis because the taxi owners share a monopoly.) Taxes have to go up because there are fewer people to pay taxes. The unemployed grow restless, and breed children and crime. The children drop out of school because there isn’t anyone at home to tell them to go to school. Some of the children who go to school make school life intolerable for other children in school, and they leave and go to private schools. The teachers are told they mustn’t discourage the schoolchildren or they will leave the schools and commit crime and unemployment. The unions don’t want the unemployed hired because they will work for less money, or because they are Negroes and Puerto Ricans and obviously can’t lay bricks or wire buildings like white people can, so they are supposed to go off somewhere and just live, and stay out of the way. But they can’t live except in houses, and houses are built by plumbers and electricians who get eight, ten, twelve dollars an hour, which means that people can’t afford to buy houses, or rent apartments, at rates the city can afford to pay its unemployed, so the federal government has to build housing projects. But there aren’t enough housing projects, so there is overcrowding, and family life disintegrates. Some people turn to crime, others to ideology. You can’t walk from one end of New York to another without standing a good chance of losing your wallet, your maidenhead, or your life; or without being told that white people are bigoted, that Negroes are shiftless, that free enterprise is the enemy of the working class, that Norman Thomas has betrayed socialism, and that the only thing that will save New York is for the whole of the United States to become like New York.

Q. What would you do, if you became Mayor of New York?
A. I would treat people as individuals. By depriving the voting blocs of their corporate advantages, I would liberate individual members of those voting blocs.

Q. What would the individual stand to gain, if you were Mayor of New York?
A. (1) The security of life and limb; (2) an opportunity to find gainful employment without the artificial hindrances now imposed by monopoly labor unions and certain minimum wage laws; (3) the hope of finding decent living quarters without paying profits to land speculators or oligopolistic construction companies; (4) the opportunity to be educated without weekly litmus tests administered by an Interracial Commissioner to determine whether the composite color of every school is exactly the right shade of brown; and (5) the internal composure that comes from knowing that there are rational limits to politics, and that one tends to be better off where government is devoted to dismantling, rather than establishing, artificial privileges of the kind New York has been establishing for years, following the lead of Washington, D.C.

Q. What does Washington, D.C., have to do with this?
A. Many of the reforms that New York needs New York cannot effect unless Washington grants it the authority to proceed. For instance, New York can’t guarantee newspaper service or shipping service to New Yorkers unless national legislation is passed which would permit the prosecution of union monopoly practices in restraint of trade. New York can’t finance its own reforms so long as the money it needs to effect them drains down to Washington to be spent in watering the caliche country surrounding the Pedernales River. New York can’t do anything about the structural unemployment problem unless the minimum wage laws are eased—that kind of thing.

Q. Why didn’t you run in the Republican primary?
A. Why didn’t Martin Luther King run for Governor of Alabama?

Q. For one thing, he isn’t a resident of Alabama.
A. That could be arranged.

Q. Are you comparing yourself with Martin Luther King?
A. No.

Q. Why haven’t you availed yourself of the two-party system in New York and fought your fight with John Lindsay in the primaries?
A. Because if I had entered the Republican primary and lost to John Lindsay I’d have felt obliged to support him in the election. Party loyalty demands that sort of thing. Since I could not in good conscience have endorsed Mr. Lindsay, I could not in good conscience have accepted the implicit discipline of a Primary contest. To avoid this dilemma, I am running as a Republican but on the Conservative ticket, whose platform is wholly congruent with the Republican National Platform of 1964.

Q. If the Republican Party in New York City is oriented toward Democratic principles, then isn’t that because New York Republicans wish it to be so, and don’t New York Republicans have the right to shape the character of their own Party?
A. (1) John Lindsay got 135,000 votes in New York in 1964, having repudiated the national candidacy of Barry Goldwater. (2) Barry Goldwater, in 1964, got 800,000 votes in New York City. Granted that Lindsay ran only in a single Congressional District. But grant, also, that he won a lot of Democratic votes. If there are 800,000 people in New York City willing to vote for Barry Goldwater, you have to assume that the Republican Party, understood as a party reflecting an alternative view of government to that of the Democratic Party, isn’t dead in New York. The question, then, is whether the Republican Party should have tried, by evangelizing the Republican faith, to double that 800,000 votes, sufficient to win an election, or do as John Lindsay is doing, which is to unsex the Republican Party and flit off with the Democratic majority—which effort would ultimately convince the voters that the Republican Party, as commonly understood, offers no genuine alternative.

Q. Isn’t John Lindsay engaged in revitalizing the Republican Party?
A. No, he is engaged in devitalizing the Republican Party. A party thrives on its distinctiveness. John Lindsay’s decision, made years ago, to bestow himself upon the nation as a Republican rather than as a Democrat was clearly based on personal convenience rather than on a respect for the two-party system, let alone a respect for the Republican alternative. The two-party system, if it is meaningful, presupposes an adversary relationship between the parties. John Lindsay’s voting record, and his general political pronouncements, put him left of the center of the Democratic Party. As such he is an embarrassment to the two-party system.

Q. Does the Conservative Party’s position in New York bear on the struggle for power within the Republican National Committee?
A. It appears to me obvious that it does. Mr. Bliss, understandably hungry for any victory by anyone who, off the record, concedes a formal affiliation with the Republican Party, has shown enthusiasm for Mr. Lindsay’s campaign. That enthusiasm is not shared by an important wing of the Party, probably the dominant wing of the Party, some of whose spokesmen have directly encouraged me to run for office and thereby uphold nationally authorized Republican principles.

Q. Granted John Lindsay is running for Mayor of New York alongside a Democrat and a Liberal. He has said that the problems of New York require a fusion approach. What do you think of that?
A. It is a relief when John Lindsay rises from banality, if only to arrive at fatuity. In this case—it was on Meet the Press, I remember—he rose to the occasion. If Gracie Mansion ought to be above factionalism, why not also the White House? And anyway, fusion in behalf of what? Who can predict what would be the differences, in the life of New York, if Lindsay were to become Mayor, or Mr. Screvane, or Beame, or O’Dwyer, or Ryan? By soliciting the endorsement of the Liberal Party and the companionship of Milton Mollen, Mr. Lindsay has promised New York only a single thing: that, if elected, not the most sensitive seismograph in the country will detect the slightest interruption in the disintegration of New York City.

Q. Are you saying it makes no difference whether Lindsay or a Democrat wins in New York?
A. I am saying it makes no difference to New Yorkers at large. It makes a lot of difference to John Lindsay, and his entourage, and to Mr. Screvane, or Mr. Beame, and theirs. And it makes a lot of difference to people outside New York, both Democrats and Republicans.

Q. Oh?
A. Democrats around the country, if we are to believe Democratic dogma, believe in the two-party system. The two-party system would be damaged by the election to a very prominent position of an ambitious gentleman whose policies are left-Democratic but whose affiliation is Republican. As far as Republicans are concerned, out over the country, they may very well not care at all what  kind of government New York gets. But they should care very much if a Republican running in New York, who refused to support the Republican presidential candidate, now gladly supports New York socialists and is supported by them, hoping to graduate into eminence in the national Republican Party. There was weeping and gnashing of teeth only a year ago among the Democrats when George Wallace piled up huge votes in Democratic primaries in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland. Shouldn’t Republicans also worry about interlopers?

Q. Then you believe that your primary duty is to beat Lindsay?
A. Stop putting words into my mouth. My primary ambition is to breathe a little hope into New York, for the benefit of those who want to escape some of the dilemmas group politics has imposed on us. And to breed a little fear in the political nabobs who believe they can fool all the people all the time.

Q. What does Barry Goldwater think of all this?
A. Ask him. But I can tell you what it is reasonable that he should think. It is reasonable that he should think it time that responsible elements in New York City organize to liberate New York from the one-party system.

Q. Have you heard from Senator Goldwater directly?
A. Yes.

Q. What did he say?
A. He said watch out for prying reporters.

Reprinted with permission from Encounter Books. For a fascinating analysis of the long-term effects Buckley's run had on the American conservatism movement, read Thomas E. Lynch's "Only Half in Fun: William F. Buckley’s NYC Mayoral Campaign, 50 Years Later," which appears in the Fall 2015 edition of Modern Age (subscribe now!).


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