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The 1965 New York City mayoral election occurred on Tuesday, November 2, 1965, with Republican Congressman John Lindsay winning a close plurality victory over the Democratic candidate, New York City Comptroller Abraham Beame.
Lindsay received 44.99% of the vote to Beame’s 40.98%, a victory margin of 4.01%.
Finishing in a distant third was the candidate of the recently formed Conservative Party, conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley Jr., who received 13.36% of the vote.
Lindsay and Beame received the Liberal and Civil Service ballot line respectively.
Lindsay won a decisive majority in Manhattan, while winning comfortable plurality victories in Queens and Staten Island. Beame won pluralities in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
Linsday would be sworn into office in January 1966, replacing outgoing Democratic Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr.
Buckley’s “paradigmatic campaign,” as he called it, sought to showcase conservative ideas as constructive alternatives to the liberal agenda. The National Review editor contested “group interest liberalism,” in which power brokers maintained control by placating voting blocs. That system, Buckley argued, perpetuated a stalemated status quo, as most voters had multiple interests. Addressing New Yorkers as individuals and talking about their city writ large, Buckley brought to bear wit, erudition, and theatricality, attracting more attention than normally accorded third-party candidates.
Buckley’s campaign had its origins in an appearance he made before the New York City Police Department’s Holy Name Society Communion Breakfast on April 4, 1965. His theme was the establishment of civilian review boards to investigate allegations of police brutality. Buckley opposed the imposition of such boards. Charges against police had been overstated, he said, positing that New Yorkers faced a greater threat from rising crime than from occasional police overreactions. He insisted that existing procedures might best address whatever abuses had occurred. Recent Supreme Court decisions, Buckley believed, had made it tougher for police officers to do their jobs.
The month before, the Alabama State Police had beaten civil rights marchers in Selma. The episode at the Edmund Pettus Bridge was very much on the minds of Buckley’s audience, the press, and the public. Buckley said events in Selma had “aroused” the “conscience of the world,” adding, based on information he later found to have been faulty, that television coverage of the episode had excluded footage of police showing restraint as demonstrators provoked them. Buckley might better have cited proven false allegations against police leveled locally.
The New York Herald Tribune reported the next day that Buckley’s audience had applauded his comments about the Alabama police and laughed at his references to the murder of civil rights volunteer Viola Liuzzo. Buckley remembered his listeners being silent during both passages. The New York Times, which mentioned neither applause nor laughter in its “bulldog” edition, a day later published an expanded story under the headline, “Buckley Praises Police of Selma/Hailed by 5,600 Police Here as He Cites ‘Restraint.’”
Unable to persuade the Herald Tribune to retract or modify its story, Buckley sued for libel. The Holy Name Society had recorded his talk; for members of the press, he played that tape, which documented the absence of applause and laughter. Clearly audible were Buckley’s references to “injustices” dealt African-Americans. Hearing the tape, the National Catholic Reporter wrote that of 26 quotations in the Herald Tribune story attributed to Buckley 19 were inaccurate. The Tribune agreed to correct the record. Buckley withdrew his suit. But the memory of how a single newspaper—however wrong its facts—could shape the narrative stayed with him. “Corrections very seldom catch up with distortions,” he observed. The manner in which the media covered his speech, as well as public figures’ demonstrated disinclination to counter such faulty reporting, lest it cost them votes, drove home to Buckley certain realities about municipal politics in the New York of that era.
Buckley later said he decided to run for mayor about 45 minutes after his April 4 speech; more likely, his decision flowed from the Herald Tribune incident. Another impetus was liberal Republican congressman John V. Lindsay’s contemplation of a mayoral run. Were Lindsay to win the mayoralty in a city where registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans three to one, Buckley surmised, commentators would declare Lindsay a contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. That would reverse inroads conservatives had made in shifting the party’s ideological center rightward with the 1964 presidential nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater. This conservatives were determined to resist.
The night Goldwater lost, Lindsay had won a fourth term in Congress with 71.5 percent of the vote in a district LBJ swept. Lindsay’s campaign slogan, “The District’s Pride, the Nation’s Hope,” telegraphed his ambitions. New York’s Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller and fellow GOP moderate Jacob Javits, the state’s senior U.S. senator, both were thinking presidentially, and unlikely to leave office soon. Junior Senator Robert F. Kennedy had won election months earlier. In 1965, the mayoralty seemed the only way station that might open for Lindsay on the path he hoped to take from the House of Representatives to the White House.
Mayor Robert F. Wagner was retiring after 12 years at City Hall. The Liberal Party, which usually backed Democrats, was poised to endorse Lindsay, enlarging his prospects. As tribute for that gesture, the Liberals demanded Lindsay name one of their operatives to his ticket and award the Liberal Party a third of mayoral patronage. Lindsay entered the race with a record as one of the most liberal members of the House, with an 85 percent approval rating from Americans for Democratic Action. On May 13, 1965, Lindsay, 43, announced his candidacy for mayor.
Buckley polled worst in Manhattan, taking 7 percent to Lindsay’s 55.8 percent and Beame’s 37 percent. He did best on Staten Island, receiving 25.2 percent to Lindsay’s 45.8 percent and Beame’s 28.9 percent. Buckley polled 21.9 percent among Irish-Americans and 17.8 percent among Italian-Americans.
Buckley’s percentage belied the growing and enduring impact he would have on American politics long after both of his opponents, each elected New York’s mayor, had departed the scene. He emerged as the best-known American conservative after Barry Goldwater.
Here is that debate, as it aired over WCBS-AM and FM, October 28, 1965.