With Ernest Hollings’s Death, New York’s James Buckley Now Oldest Ex-Senator

James Buckley, right, with his famous brother William F. Buckley on the night of his election to the Senate in 1970. Photo: Bettmann Archive

Former U.S. senator and South Carolina governor Ernest F. (Fritz) Hollings died over the weekend at the age of 97. Hollings spent 38 years in the Senate, beginning as a standard anti-civil-rights conservative, then becoming an advocate for nutrition programs after discovering extreme poverty in his state. He then settled into a pattern of occasionally eccentric moderation on most issues, accompanied by a passion for fiscal discipline and a strong antipathy to liberalized trade arrangements that threatened South Carolina’s textile industry. He briefly ran for president in 1984, an adventure that was memorialized in a hilarious New Republic piece titled “The Dog Ate My Candidate,” by the then-liberal journalist Mickey Kaus.

Hollings’s death makes former New York senator James Buckley, who is 96, the oldest living elected ex-senator (North Dakota’s Jocelyn Burdick, who is slightly older, served the last two months of her late husband’s final term). Unlike the South Carolinian, Buckley’s Senate service lasted just one term; he was defeated for reelection in 1976 by Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But his election in 1970 on the Conservative Party ticket was a major New York and national political landmark, marking the conservative takeover of the Republican Party.

James Buckley is the older brother of William F. Buckley, the late conservative columnist and editor, who is generally regarded as one of the chief founders of the American conservative movement. James was an attorney and corporate officer until he accepted the Conservative Party nomination to challenge Republican senator Jacob Javits in 1968. He won 17 percent of the vote, a solid if unspectacular showing by the party founded to counter the Liberal Party’s influence in New York, and the liberal tendencies of the state’s GOP.

But in 1970 Buckley ran again in a dramatically different context. After the assassination of New York senator Robert F. Kennedy, Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed an obscure upstate GOP congressman named Charles Goodell to the Senate. Goodell quickly became an outspoken Vietnam War opponent and compiled a generally liberal voting record. This deeply annoyed the Nixon White House, and aroused already-growing hostility to the liberal Republicanism typified by Javits, Rockefeller, and New York City mayor John Lindsay, who had won reelection in 1969 on the Liberal Party ticket after losing the GOP primary. As the campaign became competitive, Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, signaled support for Buckley by calling Goodell “radical liberal.” And Buckley not-so-subtly made himself the symbol of white Christian outer borough, suburban, and upstate resentment of Big Apple liberalism with the slogan: “Isn’t it time we had a U.S. senator?”

With the liberal-to-moderate vote split between Goodell (running on the Republican and Liberal tickets) and Democrat Richard Ottinger, Buckley won the three-way race with 39 percent. As National Review noted in retrospect, this was a really big deal at the time:

[T]he New York election of November 3, 1970, became the conservative event of the decade. Finally the Right, lashed together by the other Buckley, had won a race and proved that its ideas were viable even in one of the most liberal states in the Union. Young Americans for Freedom — an organization whose Sharon Statement had been drafted and signed in 1960 in the great Buckley house — had mobilized the college students and twentysomethings who wanted nothing to do with Tom Hayden and the New Left. The movement brimmed with optimism, which buoyed the senator-elect as he prepared to go to a Washington that he knew would oppose him.

Indeed, the Young Americans for Freedom presence in Buckley’s campaign was very noticeable, as witnessed in the Election Night spectacle of a youthful audience lustily singing “Goodbye Charlie” in celebration of Goodell’s dispatching.

Buckley’s tenure in Washington was marked by one major surprise, when he became one of the first Republican senators to call for Richard Nixon’s resignation. In 1976, Buckley gained some brief national notoriety as a tense Republican National Convention got underway; he considered offering himself as a compromise alternative to Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, before demurring when New York Republicans threatened to withdraw support for his Senate reelection (Buckley spoke to the convention and quipped: “My name is Jimmy Buckley and I’m running for the Senate,” an allusion to Jimmy Carter’s signature line “My name is Jimmy Carter and I’m running for president”).

By the time Buckley lost to Moynihan, New York politics had been decisively realigned, with Republicans becoming a recognizably conservative party (making the Conservative Party itself triumphant but less significant). When liberal Republican Jacob Javits lost the GOP nomination in 1980, and subsequently his Senate seat (even as Reagan carried New York), the transformation was complete.

Buckley never ran for office again, but served Reagan as undersecretary of State before the Gipper placed him on the D.C. Court of Appeals, from which he retired in 1996. In retirement, the former senator has been relatively quiet, though he declared himself “an unhappy man” with Donald Trump’s presidential nomination in 2016.

The third oldest ex-senator, Mike Gravel, is, at 88, toying with a presidential campaign. So far as we know, that’s not in the cards for James Buckley.

With Hollings’s Death, New York’s Buckley Oldest Ex-Senator