Once Upon a Time in the State of New York

How good is your memory? How good are you at political trivia? Before I begin, a word of caution: If you are unfamiliar with mid-Twentieth Century New York State politics and politicians: Fuhgeddabouit!

We begin with the election of Kenneth Keating to the United States Senate in 1958. Born in Lima, NY in 1900, Keating, a moderate Republican, was elected to the House of Representatives five times beginning in 1946. He defeated New York City’s well-known DA, Frank Hogan, in that 1958 election.

Keating and Governor Nelson Rockefeller both joined Jacob Javits, elected to the US Senate in 1956, to form a powerful triangle of moderate / liberal Republicans with national aspirations.

By 1962, I was coming of age politically. I had grown up instinctively a Republican, so I thought that these were my guys although, in my heart, I knew we weren’t on the same page, but Keating gave me hope. Through sources that I have never identified, he was the first politician who broke the story that led to the Cuban missile crisis.

Two years later my hope vanished when Keating led the revolt by part of the New York State delegation to the 1964 GOP convention by walking out after the delegates nominated my personal hero, Barry Goldwater, for president.

A point of trivia. Goldwater’s running mate was another upstate congressman, Bill Miller. Years later, Miller appeared in a TV ad for American Express that went something like this: “Hello, do you know who I am? I once ran for vice president of the United States.”

“ No, you don’t know who I am, that’s why I carry the American Express Card “

The commercial then displayed a blank Amex card on which the name Bill Miller was printed before our eyes.”

In a bit of irony, Keating also lost his seat in 1964 to Robert F. Kennedy. Four years later, RFK was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles just after winning the California primary.

Enter Charles Goodell. Who was Charles Goodell? The easy answer is: The father of Roger Goodell, the reigning Commissioner of the National Football League.

In 1968, Charles Goodell was yet another obscure upstate congressman who Governor Rockefeller appointed to fill the remaining two years of the late senator’s term of office.

That same year, the author, publisher and commentator, William F. Buckley, ran for mayor of New York City, in part, to raise the visibility of the nascent Conservative Party. When asked what he would do if declared the winner, Mr. Buckley replied: “Demand a recount.”

But Buckley’s serendipitous campaign accomplished his goal, it put the Conservative Party on the map. When I turned 21 in 1965, I registered as a Conservative.

As the bi-election of 1970 drew closer, WFB, called his older sibling, James (Jim) to suggest he run on the Conservative Party line for Goodell’s seat. According to a piece in a recent issue of National Review (NR), Jim’s reaction was, “That’s ridiculous.”

Ordinarily, Jim Buckley’s reaction would have been bang-on. Running on the Conservative line might draw less than 15% of the vote. The hope was the Democratic candidate would mirror Goodell’s liberalism creating a possible path for a conservative.

True to form, the Democrats nominated Richard Ottinger, a down-state Congressman to face off against Goodell. When James Buckley accepted the Conservative Party’s nomination for the Senate, we, the citizens of the Empire State had a bona fide, three-way race; two liberals against a conservative.

The stars must have been aligned: Like the 1969 Mets, the 1969 Jets and the 1970 Knicks; when the final tally of 5,893,894  votes were countered, Jim Buckley had done the impossible in the State of New York: He had been elected to the United Sates Senate by the following vote count:

Buckley: 2,288,190 or 38%

Ottinger: 2,171,232 or 36%

Goodell: 1,434,472 or 24%

Oh, happy days! I was ecstatic. It was the happiest vote I’d ever cast for a US Senate candidate.

The reality of being a conservative in New York returned with a thud in 1976. Daniel Patrick Moynihan cruised to victory in the general election with 54.1% of the vote while Jim Buckley, now running on both the Republican and Conservative lines, fell short with 44.9%.

And so it goes, although I will always wonder what would have happened if the second-place finisher in the Democratic primary, Bella Abzug, had managed to overcome her 10,000 shortfall to Moynihan? Abzug’s controversial ceaseless attack mode did her in in several runs for office and pitted against the genteel Buckley; well, if I had been a betting man, I’d have put my money on Jim Buckley.

But to be fair let me quote the words of one of my favorite call girls, Mandy Rice Davies, to put my opinion in perspective: “He would say that, wouldn’t he!”