Unmaking at 50

Unmaking Even as a mindless teen-age liberal I read Bill Buckley’s syndicated column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I even learned something from it. I looked up the words I didn’t understand in the dictionary. Reading Buckley was my preparation for the Verbal portion of the SAT exam. Reading Buckley and looking up the exotic vocabulary he employed might have constituted overpreparation, even back in those somewhat more rigorous days. Energumen, anyone?

As a mindless teen-age liberal I also learned more than something from Buckley’s The Unmaking of a Mayor when I read the paperback edition published in 1967. I think it’s my favorite of Buckley’s books and it is newly timely in the age of de Blasio.

It’s a terrific book that is part memoir, part history, part policy analysis, part media criticism. After a brief prologue, it opens: “I suppose a controversialist reaches the point, or goes mad, where he ignores criticism that is genuinely unjust. I have learned, but incompletely.” The book draws you in.

The book has been out of print for a long time, but Encounter Books has now republished it in a fiftieth anniversary edition (the one I’ve linked to) with a foreword by Neal Freeman. NR has posted the foreword as “William F. Buckley’s run for mayor: Fifty years later.”

At the time the book appeared John Leo was an associate editor at Commonweal. Leo reviewed the book for the New York Times in “Gadfly in the city.” Was he a liberal back then? Leo’s review is more or less unfriendly, but he does highlight the media criticism that remains something like an eternal verity:

The most interesting sections deal with the manhandling of Buckley by the press. Though most of us are not trained to see Buckley as a victim, his prose was, in fact, repeatedly distorted. In one instance, when he was discussing racial stereotypes (“the Jew with his crooked nose, the Italian with his accent, the Irishman with his drunkenness”), the New York Post cropped off the Irish reference and ran the rest as a racial slur.

Apropos of James Baldwin’s claim that garbage was being thrown out of Harlem windows as a social protest, Mr. Buckley asked rhetorically: “Would we, by the same token, be entitled to throw our garbage out the window when John Lindsay was passing by?” This turned up in the Herald Tribune as a suggestion that New Yorkers throw garbage out the window at Lindsay. The Tribune was consistently unable to deal with Buckley straightforwardly. Buckley’s precampaign talk before the Police Department’s Holy Name Society was misquoted 19 times in a single Tribune report. More damaging were the Tribune’s clear suggestions of racism and admiration for the Selma police, which the text does not support.

I would add only that Bill Voegeli’s invaluable Claremont Review essay “Civil rights and the conservative movement” and Fred Siegel’s excellent City Journal essay “William F. Buckley’s Unmaking of a Mayor usefully supplement a reading or rereading of The Unmaking of a Mayor.