Here in the midst of this overheated and most unique election season, it’s well worth revisiting an historic and exciting campaign from 1970, with its unlikely and improbable outcome.
And it wasn’t even a presidential election year.
In 1968, Richard M. Nixon was elected president by a narrow margin, in a year when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. As the new president sought to disengage the United States from the war in Vietnam through a “peace with honor,” the new left organized many draft-age young people and others to oppose the war. Some of these protests, as today, turned violent.
In 1970, election races for the U.S. Senate and House featured numerous polarized choices for voters, across the nation. In California, conservative Republican U.S. Sen. George Murphy was defeated by liberal Ted Kennedy ally John Tunney.
In Illinois, appointed conservative Republican Ralph Tyler Smith was defeated by Adlai Stevenson III, the son of liberal icon Adlai II, who twice ran against President Eisenhower. And in Tennessee, liberal opponent (yes, opponent) of the 1964 Civil Rights Act Al Gore Sr. was defeated by conservative Republican Bill Brock, a future Republican National Committee chairman.
In 1970, New York was as polarized as those other urbanized states, but the election for the U.S. Senate was not your typical binary choice. The Republican candidate was another appointed senator, Charles Goodell, the father of today’s NFL commissioner. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed him to replace and serve out the term of Sen. Robert Kennedy, who died in June 1968.
When plucked from relative anonymity, Charles Goodell was the congressman from the southern tier of upstate New York, his district running along Pennsylvania’s northern border. In the House, Congressman Goodell was moderately conservative, and had generally supported American involvement in Vietnam.
Once appointed to the Senate, Goodell abandoned many of his past positions with such haste and fervor, his voting record soon closely resembled those of his most liberal Democratic colleagues.
In fact, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew referred to Goodell as “the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party,” referring to the senator’s inexplicable conversion to high-test liberalism. Jorgensen became a sudden celebrity back then, as one of the first transgender individuals to “out” herself after undergoing sex reassignment surgery in Denmark.
Westchester Congressman Richard Ottinger, a stock, humorless liberal, emerged from a three-way primary to earn the nomination of the Democratic Party for U.S. senator.
However, the Conservative Party of New York, then only eight years old, was not about to permit a race for U.S. senator to be confined to two liberals. Enter James L. Buckley, a Yale attorney, business leader and brother of columnist and National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr., the latter garnering more than 13 percent of the New York City vote in his 1965 run for mayor.
A Senate Run
In 1968, James Buckley earned his state-wide campaign chops by running for the U.S. Senate, where he ran against liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits and stridently liberal Democrat Paul O’Dwyer. More than 1.1 million New Yorkers—over 17 percent of the statewide vote, chose Buckley, the registered Republican running on the Conservative line.
In 1970, sensing that New Yorkers were fed up with rising crime and violent protests, Buckley committed to another run for the Senate. The candidate wasn’t alone in visualizing a real opportunity for a conservative victory. F. Clifton White, the political mastermind who engineered Sen. Barry Goldwater’s Republican nomination for president in 1964, came on board as campaign chairman. He recruited campaign manager David R. Jones, who most recently had served as the very effective executive director of the growing Young Americans for Freedom.
As optimism and enthusiasm for Buckley kept rising, the campaign continued to attract top-notch talent. Former New Guard magazine editor and experienced campaign spokesman Arnold Steinberg signed on as press secretary, and from National Review magazine, publisher’s deputy Liz Doyle, future Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tony Dolan, and attorney-journalist Dan Oliver joined up over the summer. Future EPA administrator Jackie Schafer and Oliver were researchers extraordinaire for the campaign. And before he became a polling superstar, Arthur Finkelstein advised the campaign on public opinion and survey protocols for volunteers. Wall Street financial services executive Leon Weil, a future Reagan ambassador, helped to raise more money than a conservative had ever realized in New York.
A clear majority of Buckley campaign leaders and staff had no prior political campaign experience.
Conservative Party nominees had never had the resources to purchase television and radio ads, but thanks to White, Jones, and Weil, among others, they finally had them. To convert the Jim Buckley case into persuasive commercials, they turned to advertising star Phil Nicolaides and his Agora Group ad agency. Noted singer, actor, and songwriter Bob Haymes composed a catchy Buckley campaign song, “Join the March for America,” which was used in commercials and at public events. You can still access the song on YouTube today.
Attracting the Youth Vote
Buckley was a dream candidate for the commercial producers and the cameras. He was telegenic, brilliant, witty, and exuded an Eagle Scout’s honesty, even at age 47. Jim Buckley was also the most humble candidate for office I have yet encountered, to this day. With screamers and self-promoters in the ascendancy, even in 1970, Buckley’s humility played well with ordinary New Yorkers.
1970 was also the year when young people were lionized as imbued with righteous idealism, such that they might change the American political system for the better. Progressives were more likely to advance this view, but they were in for a surprise that autumn.
Buckley had an extraordinary appeal to students and other young people, in part because of his iconoclastic, conservative challenge to the Establishment, which, in New York, happened to be liberal. Buckley took positions that appealed to youth, favoring a volunteer military, reductions in taxation and spending, support for Israel, restraints on regulations and bureaucracy, a pro-life stance, and a more strategic approach to winning the war in Vietnam, and quickly.
More so than many other conservatives, Jim Buckley was and is a genuine conservationist. In the Senate, he was a co-sponsor of the legislation that created the Gateway National Recreation Area, preserving all of New York City’s ocean beaches, which traverse three boroughs, and which extends southward to include New Jersey’s Sandy Hook and other nearby beaches and protected lands.
In that “year of the youth,” college presidents and administrators collaborated to create the “Princeton Plan,” as a way to harness all that liberal and leftist energy they presumed to be present on campuses. The plan involved granting undergraduates three weeks off from classes in October, so they could campaign for their favored candidates for office. The Plan was implemented by over three dozen universities, mostly in the northeast, while campuses in the CUNY system and other New York City “commuter” schools were encouraging political activism, without granting actual escape from classes.
As a college senior myself that year, I was privileged to be tapped as state chairman of “Youth for Buckley,” the campaign’s venue to attract many thousands of pro-Buckley young people in universities and high schools, and 20-somethings already at work. To the certain dismay of liberal university leaders, the Buckley campaign attracted more young volunteers than the Goodell and Ottinger efforts combined.
During those “Princeton Plan” recesses, I guided busloads of students from Yale, Princeton, and other colleges, heading into New York to do their best for Buckley. Gabe Pressman, the now-departed TV news reporting icon, came to interview me about all those “kids for Buckley,” and other reporters covered this unexpected phenomenon as well.
As candidate Buckley criss-crossed New York state, he was always accompanied by dozens of young people, handing out his literature and speaking with voters in attendance. How could Jim Buckley be the snarling troglodyte depicted by the Ottinger and Goodell campaigns, with all those friendly young people around him, not to mention the candidate’s 150-watt smile.
One “Youth for Buckley” experience led to a major celebrity endorsement via a TV commercial taped in California. The event was a summer news conference, announcing yours truly as state chairman of the youth effort, followed by a “theater party,” where Jim Buckley treated a few dozen of his top volunteers to a John Wayne movie, “Chisum.” The idea was spawned by deputy press secretary Tony Dolan, and we contacted John Wayne’s Hollywood office to inform him, hoping for some sort of positive message in response.
Just before we departed our midtown Manhattan office to get to the Nassau County theater, a telegram (remember, this was prior to cell phones and decades prior to the Internet) arrived, and I brought it with me. At the theater, I read aloud the surprise message from John Wayne, in which he endorsed Jim Buckley for the Senate.
This contact with the great actor led to him taping a TV commercial for the candidate. “I don’t live in New York,” boomed John Wayne, seemingly on a movie set, in full cowboy regalia. “But if I did, you can bet your boots I’d be voting for Jim Buckley.”
Despite Gov. Rockefeller’s and Sen. Javits’ strong-arming elected Republicans to stick with Goodell, numerous GOP congressmen, state legislators, and local officials around the state endorsed challenger Buckley. In fact, influential Democratic Congressman Jim Delaney of Queens endorsed Buckley, as did Bronx Democrat Congressman Mario Biaggi (you listening, AOC?) and the 1969 Democratic nominee for NYC mayor, Mario Procaccino.
By mid-October, polls revealed a tight race between Democrat Ottinger and Conservative Buckley, with incumbent Republican-Liberal Sen. Goodell trailing by double-digits.
Finally, election day arrived, with volunteers continuing their efforts on the streets and outside the polling places across New York. As various surveys predicted, the final result was Buckley 39 percent, Ottinger 37 percent, and Goodell 24 percent, a plurality of more than 100,000 votes for the Conservative. The Buckley headquarters was the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, and the scene was one of jubilation and joyful cheering.
Another famous actor made his presence felt as the crowds were building in celebration. He was Robert Redford, widely known as a liberal environmentalist. Was he making a statement with his suede cowboy jacket in the Waldorf ballroom? Actually, he was studying for his lead role as Bill McKay in the movie, “The Candidate.” I presume he wanted to see what a winning candidate’s election night celebration looked like, and we Buckleyites obliged.
News accounts of election night referred to the “sea of young people” filling the grand ballroom, celebrating a hard-earned victory. In the 50 years since that U.S. Senate campaign, no other third-party candidate has been elected to the upper house.
To this day, those embittered by Buckley’s victory suggest that his opponents “split the liberal vote” to enable his victory. Yet this canard was disproven in 1970. Pollster Arthur Finkelstein asked voters whom they would support in a two-way race. In a dualistic Ottinger–Buckley matchup, one poll gave Buckley 54 percent, and another concluded that a 56–44 percent result was likely, had Goodell withdrawn. Goodell himself told Sen. Buckley that his internal surveys indicated that his supporters would go for Buckley in a two-way race, dissuading him from dropping out. Indeed, the only counties won by Sen. Goodell were upstate Republican areas, especially in and near his old congressional district.
A Distinguished Career
In the U.S. Senate, Jim Buckley delivered as promised, voting and fighting for tax reductions, domestic spending restraint, campaign finance reforms, constitutional-constructionist judges, a volunteer military, and a stronger national defense. He buttressed his reputation as an environmental conservationist, supporting and improving the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, to go along with his aforementioned sponsorship of the Gateway National Recreation Area Act.
In 1974, Sen. Buckley became the second Republican and the first conservative member of the Senate to call for the resignation of President Nixon, due to the latter’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. There were never any ethical breaches associated with New York’s junior senator, and his impeccably clean record caused many to pay attention when Buckley parted company with the president.
Having served in the Senate, Buckley moved to the executive branch, accepting President Ronald Reagan’s appointment as Undersecretary of State. He moved on to the critical position of president of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, beaming accurate news and information into the communist nations of eastern Europe and Russia, just as Reagan was pressing the Soviet Union to reform and, before long, to dissolve.
Having earned kudos at the highest levels of our executive branch, in 1985, Buckley took another appointment from President Reagan. He was easily confirmed as a Judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, often understood to be the second-highest bench in the Federal judiciary.
At age 97, Buckley is retired now, but has “senior judge” status, and could adjudicate again should an emergency arise. He’s the oldest living person who has served in the U.S. Senate, having been born several months before Bob Dole.
Not content to remain detached from the public arena, Sen. Buckley authored “Freedom at Risk” at age 88, and “Saving Congress from Itself” at 92, without ghost writers. Both books make persuasive cases against Federal overreach, the abdication of many congressional prerogatives, and the high cost of Federal “grants in aid,” aka needless pork barrel spending.
The estimable Neal Freeman declared Judge Buckley to be “America’s most distinguished public servant since John Quincy Adams,” and he has a point. Certainly no living American has served (and with distinction) at the very top levels of our legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. And all this decades after young Jim Buckley volunteered as a naval officer in World War II’s Pacific theater.
Amazingly, though there have been thousands of “namings” of public works, parks, bridges, and highways across New York state, there has as yet been nothing named for James L. Buckley, one of the most illustrious and ethical public servants in U.S. history.
Until our public officials come to realize and correct this embarrassing and noteworthy omission, let us remember one of the most remarkable political campaigns on record, 50 years ago this month.
Herbert W. Stupp is the editor of Gipperten.com and served in the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Stupp was also a commissioner in the cabinet of NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Early in his career, he won an Emmy award for television editorials.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.