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FROM NEWSDAY.COM - February 26, 2007:
When NY had a conservative senator
By Raymond J. Keating
Not long ago, New York sent a real conservative to the U.S. Senate.
Honest, I'm not kidding.
But how could that be, especially in light of our two lefty senators today? For those with short political memories, James L. Buckley, the man who achieved this conservative feat, acknowledged: "They'd probably be shocked."
In 1970, Buckley beat the Democrat and the Republican by running under the Conservative Party's banner. He lost re-election six years later to Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Buckley's autobiography, "Gleanings From an Unplanned Life: An Annotated Oral History" (ISI Books, $25), was just published. It serves as a fascinating refresher on recent political history, while providing a wealth of Buckley's common sense on economic, cultural, political and legal topics that New Yorkers desperately need to hear.
It turns out Buckley, the older brother of William F. Buckley Jr., is a fairly private person who planned to become a country lawyer. He not only wound up in the Senate but subsequently served as an under-secretary of state in the Reagan administration, president of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and finally a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, until retiring in 2000. He turns 84 March 9.
During a wide-ranging conversation last week, we touched on issues that were important to him in the Senate and most certainly remain hot today.
Imagine a New York senator leading the charge for distinctly nonliberal reforms. For example, he writes in his book, "I was the first to call for tuition tax credits to cover a portion of the cost of private education." Regarding school choice today, Buckley told me, "This is the key to improving the quality of education across the board by creating competition for public schools." He added, "My sense of it is that Americans are getting sufficiently frustrated by the failure to see any kind of improvement despite increasing expenditures on public education that the idea of vouchers becomes more and more attractive."
Buckley also was the first senator to introduce a constitutional amendment to, as he writes, "restore protection to unborn children by reversing the Supreme Court's appalling decisions." What about the pro-life effort these many years later? He strikes a somewhat optimistic chord, observing: "If one takes polls seriously, I think it seems clear that the longer we live in a society that has massive abortions occurring, the more people are shying away from the idea that this is a nice thing. I think that there is a growing gut opposition to abortion." But change will have to first come via the Supreme Court, he added.
Interestingly, Buckley also writes about his environmentalism. That might seem strange for a conservative. But he never ranked among the wild-eyed greenies. He acknowledged, for example, the need for cost-benefit analysis of environmental regulation, though adding, "there are certain values that can't be measured in dollars and cents, such as the joy of hearing a wood thrush."
As for today's environmental movement, Buckley said that "the sort of thing that scares an awful lot of conservatives away from taking it seriously is that it has become somewhat of a religion. Claims are made that simply cannot be supported scientifically."
Could a Buckley-esque conservative get elected statewide in New York again? The former senator points out that he won by appealing to "a large segment of traditional Democrats who take their social values very seriously." Buckley advised Republicans to "not shy away" from those values.
He concluded, "I think the fundamental core values that Ronald Reagan addressed, which include a reduction in governmental interference in individual lives, together with steadfast support of traditional moral values, will have an appeal."
One hopes, while in the meantime deeply appreciating an all-too-brief moment in history when New York had a principled, conservative U.S. senator.