James L. Buckley: The Conservative Enigma of New York



By the 1960s, conservatives among New York Republicans were growing irritated with their party for backing people for office who were basically “me too” Republicans, or as they would be known today, RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). The greatest offenders for them were Governor Nelson Rockefeller (hence the old term “Rockefeller Republican”), Senator Jacob Javits, and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. In their frustration, some broke off and formed the Conservative Party and their most notable candidates were the Buckley brothers. William F. Buckley Jr., the late founder of the conservative publication National Review and host of PBS’s “Firing Line”, ran a quixotic campaign for mayor in 1965 to serve as a conservative alternative between the Republican candidate Lindsay and the Democrat candidate Abraham Beame, both liberals. Although this campaign was unsuccessful at winning, Buckley did succeed in getting attention. In 1968, Buckley’s older brother, James L. Buckley (1923- ), ran for the Senate against Jacob Javits but lost decisively. In 1970, however, opportunity knocked.

After the assassination of Senator Bobby Kennedy, Governor Rockefeller appointed Congressman Charles Goodell to serve out the remainder of his term. Goodell was a moderate conservative, effectively representing how people in his upstate district felt on politics. However, when he was promoted to the Senate, his record began to mirror that of Jacob Javits. Goodell became a staunch liberal and a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, coming into direct conflict with the Nixon Administration. Vice President Spiro Agnew publicly stated that he was the “Christine Jorgensen (a famous transsexual) of the Republican Party” (Cannon). Goodell wrote off the conservative vote for the 1970 election, trying to win moderates and liberals. This would have been fine had the Democrats not chosen to run their own candidate, Congressman Richard Ottinger. The Conservative Party once again picked James Buckley. Goodell campaigned boldly, his campaign claiming he was “Too good to lose!” In a campaign ad, he referred to Ottinger as the “lightweight” and Buckley as the “dead weight”. The former for his lack of legislative achievements and the latter for his rightist economic philosophy. The Nixon Administration surreptitiously favored Buckley, whose slogan was “Isn’t it time we had a senator?” (Gizzi) Thanks to a split liberal vote, Buckley won the election while Goodell came in third.

While in the Senate, Buckley proved as conservative as you could be for New York at the time. He was particularly notable for his opposition to campaign finance laws. Buckley led a group that included former Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) that successfully contested the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 in the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Buckley v. Valeo (1976), which found expenditure limits for campaigns to be unconstitutional restrictions on speech while upholding some contribution limits. He, along with Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), was at the forefront of opposition to the decision Roe v. Wade (1973), and proposed a constitutional amendment granting human embryos 14th Amendment protections as legal persons. In 1972, he was one of only eight senators to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment, the chief rationale for opposition among its opponents being that it would make women eligible for the draft. The most notable exception Buckley made in his conservatism was to support the New York City bailout in 1975, a position taken by every single federally elected official from his state. In 1976, Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), stunned by Ronald Reagan’s choice of running mate as liberal Senator Richard Schweiker (R-Penn.), pushed for him to choose Buckley instead. Initially, his opponent for reelection in 1976 looked to be Rep. Bella Abzug, a radical leftist who was likely to lose. However, the more moderate UN Ambassador Dan Moynihan entered the primary, defeated Abzug, and went on to defeat Buckley for reelection.

He tried to rejoin the Senate in 1980 when he ran against Connecticut Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, but lost. He subsequently served as the head of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty under President Reagan and then served as a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia until he assumed senior status in 1996, retiring in 2000. In 2014, Buckley wrote Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States & Empowering Their People, in which he argued that grants-in-aid to states constituted bribery and coercion and should be ended. He commented upon the 2016 election that although he offered no endorsement, that he considered the choices of Trump and Clinton to be “too depressing to contemplate” and expressed doubt that his late younger brother or President Reagan (who he personally knew) would have approved of Trump (Doyle). At age 96, Buckley is still alive at the time of this writing and he approves of Trump’s domestic policy and judicial appointments but is concerned about his foreign policy. He stands as the last truly conservative politician to be elected to the Senate from New York and the only member of New York’s Conservative Party to have won federal office.


Cannon, C.M. (2015, June 3). Jenner’s Trail was Blazed by Christine Jorgensen. Real Clear Politics.

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Doyle, W. (2016, September 8). James Buckley on 2016: ‘I am an unhappy man’: Column. USA Today.

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Gizzi, J. Former Sen. Jim Buckley, 96, Still ‘Champion of America'”. Newsmax.

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