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National Review

Jaime Sneider
Gleanings from an Unplanned Life: An Annotated Oral History, by James L. Buckley (ISI, 308 pp., $25)

Senator/Judge/Secretary James Buckley discloses that he was born in an elevator. In this extraordinary book--done as a Question and Answer exploration for the Court of Appeals—Buckley is artfully questioned by a skilled lawyer, and we learn about much more than what he accomplished as a jurist on the formidable D.C. Circuit Court.

Before he got there, he had been elected senator from New York, then became head of Radio Free Europe for the State Department; then, finally, came the court years. Judge Buckley is manifestly not a gabber, so it took the skills of the interrogator to draw out the full portrait of a remarkable man, whose inclinations were to immerse himself in nature (bird-watching continues to consume him), but who instead went to law school (Yale), engaged in business activity with his father (New York), and was lured to politics by Brother Bill (who induced him to act as political director of the famous race for mayor of New York City). The public life attracted James, who soon was elected to the Senate on the Conservative-party line and stayed there until he was defeated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

We have here a self-described memoir of sorts, which he calls Gleanings from an Unplanned Life. The book is lively with newspaper clips, photographs, excerpts of one sort or another. But its backbone is the five interviews in which the lively lady examiner gets from the diffident public servant a narrative text disclosing his views on public matters. Buckley, in a distinctive way, tells his story and keeps alive the family tradition for introducing wit in one’s narrative, and for acknowledging, with extraordinary gentility, the views of others who come to different conclusions.
James Buckley’s background was cosmopolitan; he spent some of his early years in Europe. “I hate to admit that I was not a typical, red-blooded American boy,” though the reader is glad that he wasn’t. Buckley preferred natural history and bird-watching to baseball. We learn that Buckley owned as a child, or befriended as an adult, armadillos, hawks, flying squirrels, penguins, polar bears, boa constrictors, and walruses.

A wonderfully readable and informative part of the book recounts the author’s military service in the Navy during World War II. Buckley would never exaggerate to his benefit and tells us that he heard more gunfire in the Pacific than he ever saw, but he involves the reader directly. “We could hear the battleships’ 16-inch shells rumbling overhead, sounding like muffled versions of New York City subway cars.” During his two-year assignment at sea, Buckley spent only five nights off the ship. He describes running into former classmates at officers’ clubs, fleeting personal engagement in the hectic war scene, yet all of this--social visits, improvised outings, wartime frolics--was done in the context of death and loneliness and common purpose. It becomes easier to understand the author’s impatience with the lawlessness he witnessed in the Pacific during his brief layovers—it was so alarmingly frequent as to suggest the lawlessness of the campus radicals of the 1960s. Buckley acknowledges that the campus violence, the anti-war protests, the bombings, and the flag-burnings contributed to his unexpected decision to run for the Senate from New York a second time, after his initial defeat.

At the outset of his successful 1970 Senate race, Buckley commissioned a revealing poll. The poll was not designed to instruct Buckley on which policies he’d espouse when barnstorming the state. Buckley was attempting to ascertain whether the uncompromising positions he already held could hope to resonate with voters. Though the poll results are not included in the book, Buckley’s prospective campaign manager, F. Clifton White, opined that they told that victory would be possible in a three-way contest (which the race turned out to be), pitting liberal Democrats, liberal Republicans, and conservatives against one another.

If William F. Buckley Jr. is the public intellectual of the family, James is the political statesman. That his political views were diametrically opposed to those of the political establishment, both Democratic and GOP, explains what makes his memoir so riveting: He is the insider as outsider.

Buckley’s account of his years in the Senate, where he served from 1971 to 1977, provides a first-hand look at contemporary conservatism in its awkward adolescence. Already more than the ideological movement of the 1960s, it was not yet the predominant political power it would become in the 1980s. As an improbable senator, Buckley took up a number of improbable causes, including what he describes as a Don Quixote-like assault on the venerable institution of pork-barrel politics. Some of these lost causes--indexation of the income tax, for example--later became law. And though Buckley acknowledged that the Human Life Amendment would never reach the floor, he introduced other legislation that required senators to take a position on unborn life. Congress actually enacted some of this legislation, including a law forbidding the execution of pregnant women.

Many of the public-policy proposals Buckley put forward had not been heard from any political legislator. Buckley’s reflections on race and the environment are especially captivating. By introducing legislation to help blacks start their own businesses and own their own homes, Buckley offered an empowering alternative to the dependency-instilling Great Society welfare programs. Buckley also discusses employing staff members to assist his black constituents in navigating unfriendly government bureaucracies so as to obtain benefits already available but difficult to exploit. “When I touched on this theme on the campaign trail, I heard boos from rednecks in the back of the hall, and (I regret to say) the Conservative party had its share of them.”

Another area that interested Buckley--environmentalism--had not yet become a left-wing property. Long before former vice president Al Gore brought hysteria into the debate, Senator Buckley was injecting reason. He supported national regulation to protect the environment. His program, however, had conservative bearings. It required, for example, that the government balance costs and benefits when formulating regulation. Buckley’s analysis of public policy over and over reveals his conviction that conservatism was not just the repackaging of old ideas with rhetorical sleight-of-hand: The creation of blue-state conservatism entailed reinventing the Republican party with new analysis and new ideas.

Just as arresting as his account of his time in the Senate is Buckley’s description of the decade he spent as a federal judge. Legal scholars consider the D.C. Circuit the most intellectual and prestigious of the appeals courts; four of the nine current Supreme Court justices previously sat on its bench, including Chief Justice Roberts, who succeeded to the seat vacated by Buckley when he retired. Buckley’s most engaging thoughts about his time on the court illuminate how his experience in the government’s other two branches shaped his philosophy as a judge.

In a word, Buckley is a textualist, and believes judges need mostly to look to the text of the statute (or Constitution) when interpreting the law. As a former senator, he was well equipped to understand the pitfalls of relying on legislative history. He draws special attention to the extent to which interested parties recite on the House and Senate floors, for inclusion in the Congressional Record, interpretations whose sole purpose is not to promote passage of a given bill but to influence court decisions as to the meaning of the bill once it has been enacted.

Jim Buckley closes his memoir by repeating that his life has been substantially unplanned. This is so, but it is so also, as the text reveals, that recurrently in life he has thought his way through alternatives. These often involved the appeal of principle, and the lure of power. When he left the bench four years ago a poll was conducted by The Washington Monthly. It was astonishing, but hugely gratifying. Of all the judges serving on the federal bench, Buckley was named as first in the judgment of his peers. That achievement was utterly unplanned, to use Buckley’s language, but wonderfully rewarding, as is this idiomatic, charming, informative account of his public life.

Mr. Sneider formerly served as deputy associate director of the White House communications office. He is currently a second-year law student at Columbia University.




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