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Present at the creation

Neal Freeman is a former National Review staffer and editor. In 1965, he was detailed to serve as the press secretary in Bill Buckley’s quixotic campaign for mayor of New York. In my paperback copy of Buckley’s campaign memoir, The Unmaking of a Mayor, there is a photograph of an impossibly young and handsome Freeman looking over the draft of a speech with Buckley. Freeman recently drew on his long relationship with Buckley for a speech at Yale marking the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, still in print after all these years.

Freeman was present at the creation of the frequently invoked “Buckley rule” counseling conservatives to support “the rightwardmost viable candidate” in primary and general elections. Freeman tells the story with flair in “Buckley rule — according to Bill, not Karl.”

Freeman explains that the rule was originally formulated to rule on the winner of National Review’s endorsement for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination between Nelson Rockefeller (supported by the formidable NR editor James Burnham) and Barry Goldwater (supported by the other editors). When the time came to pronounce his judgment, Buckley held that National Review would support “the rightwardmost viable candidate.” Freeman explains:

We all knew what “viable” meant in Bill’s lexicon. It meant somebody who saw the world as we did. Somebody who would bring credit to our cause. Somebody who, win or lose, would conservatize the Republican party and the country. It meant somebody like Barry Goldwater.

In Freeman’s telling, “viability” is to be distinguished from “electability”:

Bill Buckley was careful with words. If he had opted on that June day for the words “rightwardmost electable candidate,” we would all have recognized it as a victory for Team Rockefeller. And life might look very different today. If there had been no Goldwater, National Review might not have become so influential, and if there had been no Goldwater, no National Review, there might have been no Reagan.

But, as Freeman himself acknowledges, neither Goldwater nor Rockefeller was electable against Johnson in 1964. The Goldwater campaign made it possible for conservatives to seize the reins of power in the Republican Party, for the party to become a conservative vehicle. As recently as 1960, Richard Nixon had had to come to terms with Nelson Rockefeller in the so-called Pact of Fifth Avenue. It was the last hurrah for the Eastern establishment wing of the Republican Party.

Freeman also cites Buckley’s 1965 New York mayoralty campaign for the distinction between “viability” and “electability” in that Buckley sought, not to win, but to sidetrack the highly electable (as he proved to be in New York) Republican John Lindsay. But Buckley’s 1965 campaign must be seen (as Buckley saw it) in the context of the same intramural contest for ascendancy between conservatives and the fading Eastern liberal wing of the party. Buckley devotes an entire chapter of Unmaking (chapter 4) to the anatomy of Lindsay’s politics.

Buckley more or less proves that Lindsay was an orthodox Democratic liberal in all but name and makes it clear that he opposed Lindsay because of his concern about the national impact of a Lindsay victory on intramural Republican politics in the battle that Goldwater had for the moment secured for conservatives. Indeed, Buckley sagely located Lindsay ideologically among the left-most faction of the Democratic Party. By 1972, Lindsay had in fact switched parties and was running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

As he performs his taxonomy of Lindsay’s politics coming into the mayoralty race, Buckley examines Lindsay’s record in Congress representing New York’s so-called Silk Stocking district. Buckley describes Lindsay’s congressional constituents on the Upper East Side (here I quote just for the pleasure of it):

Lindsay’s home district is probably the most fabled in the United States. It shelters not only just about all the resident financial, social and artistic elite of New York but also the densest national concentration of vegetarians, pacifists, hermaphrodites, junkies, Communists, Randites, clam-juice-and-betel-nut eaters; plus, also, a sprinkling of quite normal people.

But times have changed since 1964 and 1965, thanks in part to Buckley and his co-conspirators such as Freeman. The Republican Party has become the conservative party. To the extent that it achieves majority status in the House or the Senate, it will tend to hold off the progressive agenda under which we are suffocating.

Doesn’t a rule of viability overlap with electability under present circumstances and suggest against the likes of Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, who in any event fail the test of “viability” even as articulated by Freeman? At least this seems to me the question raised by Freeman’s wonderful column.

FOOTNOTE: For an excellent account of Buckley’s 1965 campaign, see “The Buckley Effect” by Sam Tanenhaus.

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