James Lane Buckley celebrates his 100th birthday Thursday. He is believed to be the only living American who has served at the highest levels in all three branches of our federal government: as senator, undersecretary of state, and federal Circuit Court of Appeals judge. Moreover, those who know him best appreciate him not just for what he has accomplished, but for his genteel brilliance and character.
Jim spent most of his early life in the private sector, but when his younger brother ran for New York City mayor in 1965, Jim managed William F.’s campaign. That taste of the political battlefield was enough to persuade Jim to run as the New York Conservative Party Senate candidate in 1968. He ran again in 1970 and was elected in a three-way race. The first race was as quixotic as his brother’s race for mayor, but when he was asked two years later to try again by conservative party leaders, it was anything but.
After Robert Kennedy was assassinated, then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed a fairly conservative Republican congressman, Charles Goodell, to serve the remainder of his term. Goodell believed the state was moving left and concluded that to be elected in 1970, he should do the same. He traded his Brooks Brothers suits for bell-bottoms, abandoned old positions for more modish leftist positions and figured that his future was secure. He was wrong. The Democrats fielded a typical liberal, and conservatives lined up behind Mr. Buckley, whose slogan, “Isn’t it About Time We Had a Senator,” struck a chord. Jim Buckley won with 39% of the vote and was sworn in as, in brother Bill’s words, “the sainted junior senator from New York.”
I met Jim Buckley in 1968 when he was running against incumbent Democrat Jacob Javits. We’ve been friends ever since. I was working for then-Vice President Spiro Agnew but joined Jim as a Senate staffer upon Agnew’s resignation and when the Nixon administration was unraveling.
As a senator, Jim Buckley always strived to do what was right rather than what was politically expedient. This deep belief — that elected officials in a free republic should adhere to principle rather than simply pander to voters and contributors — led Mr. Buckley into conflicts that resulted in his defeat in 1976. Consider the courage it took for a senator who, in many ways, owed his election to President Richard Nixon and the “silent majority” to become in 1974 one of the first to call for Nixon’s resignation as in the best interest of the nation. It was an agonizing decision Mr. Buckley knew could cost him a second term, but he believed it was the right thing to do.
Preparing for the press conference, the senator asked me if there was anyone he hadn’t alerted that deserved a call. I suggested his biggest contributor who helped because Nixon had asked. Mr. Buckley called and explained his reasoning, the supporter replied, “f—- you,” and hung up. Many New Yorkers reacted similarly when asked to reelect Mr. Buckley in 1976. History, however, has been far kinder to him.
A year later, New York City, on the verge of bankruptcy, sought a federal bailout. Mr. Buckley joined then-President Gerald Ford and opposed requiring the nation’s taxpayers to pay for the city’s profligacy because he believed doing so would be wrong. A famous New York Post headline reported, “Ford to New York, Drop Dead!” What politician today would have that kind of courage? He knew that that decision, too, could cost him his job, and he was right.
President Ronald Reagan, however, enticed Mr. Buckley back into public service. Reagan appointed him undersecretary of state and then made him head of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, where, as always, he advanced his nation’s interests. Reagan then appointed the former senator to the job for which few were better suited.
Jim Buckley spent the next 15 years as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, second in importance only to the Supreme Court, and he is widely recognized by those who served with him and practiced before the D.C. Circuit as an outstanding jurist. Some years ago, former staffers and Circuit Court colleagues gathered at our house to reconnect. Judges Larry Silberman and Patricia Wald, representing perhaps the most conservative and most liberal of Jim’s colleagues, attended and said they wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
One of Mr. Buckley’s four books, “If Men Were Angels,” should be on every conservative’s reading list. He is a rational conservationist for the nation’s air, water and wildlife, an expert on birds and the musk ox, of all things. George Will once observed that Jim “isn’t a conservative, he’s a bird-watcher.” He was only half right.
Jim’s wide-ranging interests charmed a recent Media Research Center cruise, and his passions have certainly contributed to his longevity.
Mr. Buckley is a devout Catholic and a family man. His friends this week are celebrating his career, his contributions to the country and his birthday. But, modest as ever, he is declining to be publicly honored except by a Fund for America’s Studies scholarship just named in his honor and by his brother’s journal and foundation, which is initiating an annual lecture in his name.
That James Lane Buckley is still with us is something for which we should be grateful; that he has devoted a lifetime to preserving the values that define a free republic is something we should celebrate.
• David Keene is editor-at-large for The Washington Times.