Sen. James L. Buckley titled his 2006 oral history, “Gleanings from an Unplanned Life.” Unplanned as it may have been, the older brother of the late William F. Buckley Jr. spent a life in public service promoting individual liberty. He served six years as a U.S. senator from New York, elected from the Conservative Party. He sat for 11 years on the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and was appointed to several posts in the Reagan Administration. He also served in the Navy during World War II and earned degrees from Yale, where he was a member of the Skull and Bones society.
Much like his brother, Sen. Buckley represents an era of conservatism and political discourse that is rare in today’s society. He is an academic and an intellect, an orator and a sailor, a thinker and a scholar. He’s the uncle of influential conservatives Christopher Buckley, Brent Bozell and William F.B. O’Reilly.
We reached Buckley on Monday by phone at his residence in Sharon, Conn. This is Part 1 of our conversation.
The State of the Republican Party
Douglas Barclay: What are your thoughts on the current state of the conservative movement and how it relates to the ever-evolving Republican Party?
Sen. James L. Buckley: People are concerned, I think, in the movement about the same general problems, but I do not think they are focusing on any one particular one. They are concerned over the spread of the federal government and that it is taking over more and more areas of human life and changing the rules. They are worried about the cost of unlimited spending and the restrictions on individual freedom that result when you have an army of anonymous bureaucrats creating rules that impinge on just about every area of human activity.
Barclay: Do you feel there is a disparity among different generations of Republican voters? Is there a stark contrast to those who came up with Buckley and Reagan than those who have come up with Sen. Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Ryan (R-WI.)?
Buckley: I wouldn’t put Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan in the same category at all. Paul Ryan has come up with wonderfully thoughtful analysis of what needs to be done. And he has done so in detail with the budget that he created and that the House adopted a few years ago. It spelled out a strategy to bring entitlements under control in a way that I think invites a careful examination by liberals. It has been thought through. Ted Cruz is throwing out slogans. He is paying no attention to what is politically feasible at the time. I think that he may be — in the name of conservatism — coming up with demands that make the basic objectives, perhaps less achievable.
Barclay: It has been said that the rise of the tea party, and the change of Republican rhetoric coincides with the death of your brother in 2008. Do you see any correlation to this change of philosophical guard?
Buckley: The tea party is a strange phenomenon…. People grab the label, and I’m not sure they always put it where it belongs. Back in 2010, the tea party represented a genuine grassroots movement across the country. It was a sentiment of Americans who suddenly became aware of the extraordinary cost of federal responsibilities and what it was doing — and what it posed in the long term. I’m not sure that earlier grassroots movement was that far away from the kind of concerns my brother was expressing. That label has been co-opted. As it is understood today, it reflects a tone quite different from one of reasoned examination of fundamentals and the invitation to debate that crystalized in National Review — the editors that were brought together by my brother now about 40-50 years ago.
Barclay: You were the last U.S. senator elected under a third party. Do you think there is room for a third party in politics?
Buckley: If you are talking nationally, I don’t see one emerging. In New York State under very special, peculiar circumstances, it was possible for a third party candidate to get 40 percent of the vote and get into the Senate. I don’t think that realistically, given our political institutions, that you could magically overnight have a third force that could command a majority in a national election. Incrementally over time, it could be possible for a third party to emerge. The dynamics are as such that a significant third party candidate would remove votes from another party. This is what gave us Clinton, if it hadn’t been for Ross Perot, who got about 10 percent of the vote and took [the presidency] away from George Herbert Walker Bush. I believe that the country is at a real crossroads now, and that if we continue the way we are going for another 10-to-15 years, it will be impossible for us to unscramble the omelet — the status regulatory omelet — and get back to the emphasis on limited power that has been the historic source of American strength.
Barclay: What do you feel will be the lasting legacy of the conservative movement?
Buckley: The conservative movement, as I understand it, is grounded in an understanding that the key to our success is a limitation of government; to those responsibilities that are necessary to preserve an environment in which free men and women can lead their own creative lives; and [to] achieve their own objectives to the best of their abilities. Recognizing that there are social responsibilities that are probably best met by private action, private charities, private generosities, but that government does have a legitimate rule in ensuring a safety net that is modest enough that you do not create disincentives for people to go out and create ways of creating their own living. I think that a conservative movement — a conservative crust — must never lose confidence in the abilities of free markets to achieve the greatest growth. [It is] the greatest encouragement of human enterprise, human imagination, human inventiveness that will benefit all elements of society [and will] do it better than government bureaucrats can.
Check back for Part 2 tomorrow.
- What would Buckley think? (rare.us)
- Remembering William F. Buckley Jr: What would he say today? (rare.us)
- Mr. Buckley Was the Tea Party (rushlimbaugh.com)
BUCKLEY SPEAKS (Part 1): Nation's last third-party senator on the chances of a third party today rare.us/story/buckley/Rare @RareRare @RareRare @Raredouglas barclay @douglabarclay17It's a REPUBLIC! @notalemming
BUCKLEY SPEAKS (Part 1): Nation's last third-party senator on the chances of a third party today ow.ly/2AJZOhAmerican Girl @AIIAmericanGirIRare @Rare
BUCKLEY SPEAKS (Part 1): Nation's last third-party senator on the chances of a third party today bit.ly/1gfJTsS