The Unmaking of a Mayor


In 1965, William F. Buckley, Jr., ran for mayor of New York City. It was the perfect place for Buckley's brand of conservatism. New York has no foreign policy, so there was little room for his militaristic tendencies. Instead he aimed his lance at the city's dysfunctional bureaucracy, producing a platform that was at least 80 percent libertarian.

He was sure to lose, of course, but that allowed him to be creative—and impolitic. Consider this exchange from his first press conference:

Q: Do you think you have any chance of winning?

WFB: No.

Q: How many votes do you expect to get, conservatively speaking?

WFB: Conservatively speaking, one.

That wasn't just a good line. At a time when some at National Review argued that the magazine should always support the most conservative electable candidate, the journal's editor himself was asking New Yorkers to vote for a man who knew very well that he was unelectable. That's a far cry from the National Review of today, a magazine more willing to settle for Mitt Romney than to cheer on a protest campaign.

Buckley received 13 percent of the vote in a three-way race. His campaign demonstrated, three years before it became obvious to everyone else, that a conservative could appeal to northern blue-collar Democrats. It also paved the way for other jape campaigns with a literary sensibility, by Norman Mailer in New York, Hunter Thompson in Aspen, even Jello Biafra in San Francisco. To my mind it was the highlight of Buckley's career.