James Lane Buckley died August 18, having passed his 100th birthday last March.
The soft-spoken Buckley catapulted to national prominence in November 1970 when, against expectations, he won a U.S. Senate seat from New York on the Conservative Party line, beating out a pair of liberals on the Democratic and Republican lines. (One might argue the Ottinger-Goodell pair was the first iteration of a liberal “squad”).
Pro-lifers owe Senator Buckley a great debt. He and Jesse Helms (R-NC) were the first senators to introduce constitutional amendments to overturn Roe v. Wade, an effort Buckley pursued during his one term in the Senate.
Buckley’s Human Life Amendment differed from Helms’ in that it more explicitly took account of abortion. The Helms Amendment (which mirrored a similar proposal introduced in the House by then-Rep. Lawrence J. Hogan of Maryland, father of the former governor) basically copied the Fourteenth Amendment but made clear it applied “from the moment of conception.” Buckley’s amendment explicitly spoke to abortion, banning except for those procedures necessary “to save the life of the mother.” When the precision of that language was challenged—by Catholics trying to apply the double effect principle and by lawyers who already foresaw how far some concepts might be stretched by abortionists seeking to evade them—Buckley subsequently filed a revised version, allowing procedures “necessary to prevent the death of the mother.” In that argument, Buckley presciently foresaw the efforts among abortionists today (as in Texas) who are seeking to pretend that prolife legislation imperils women’s lives.
Buckley personally testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee when then-Indiana Senator Birch Bayh conducted sham hearings on Human Life Amendments before burying them in September 1975.
Buckley ran for re-election in 1976 via a detour in offering himself as a compromise candidate in the Gerald Ford v. Ronald Reagan contest for the Republican presidential nomination that year. Democrats and Liberals (a separate party in New York), smarting from his upset six years earlier, lined up solidly behind Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Republicans did not: a Westchester liberal Republican challenged Buckley in the September Senate primary, while Buckley’s own fellow Empire State Republican senator, Jacob Javits, always kept him at a distance. Moynihan defeated Buckley, 54-45%.
Buckley subsequently served in appointed positions in the Reagan administration and was later named a federal judge. His attempt to return to politics—running for the Senate from his home in Connecticut in 1980—losing to Democrat Chris Dodd.
William F. Buckley, Jr., his brother (who died in 2008) and the conservative political activist, was wont to call James “the sainted Senator from New York.” Today, I am sure Bill and St. Peter may be again using that appellation.