I Would Rather Be Governed By the First 2,000 People in the Telephone Directory than by the Harvard University Faculty

William F. Buckley Jr.? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am trying to verify a quotation from the conservative commentator and novelist William F. Buckley Jr. It goes something like this:

I would rather be governed by the first 1,000 people listed in the phone book than by the faculty members from an Ivy League University.

I do not recall if the phone book was for a particular city, and I do not know whether a specific university was named. Could you please help me to find a citation?

Quote investigator: William F. Buckley attended Yale University as an undergraduate, and he wrote critically about the institution in his book “God and Man at Yale”; however, a different school of higher learning appeared in his saying about governance. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in a profile and interview of Buckley in “Esquire” magazine in January 1961: 1

“I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory,” he said, “than by the Harvard University faculty.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The April 1961 the remark was noticed and reprinted in “The Reporter: The Magazine of Facts and Ideas” which was edited and published by Professor Max Ascoli of the New School for Social Research.

Buckley did not specify a city for the directory in the initial citation; hence, “The Reporter” selected the Manhattan telephone directory to see who might be included in Buckley’s suggested administration. “Aach, Albert” was the first person listed: 2

We don’t know Aach, Albert, but many names among the first two thousand indicate that Mr. Buckley has proposed a much more lively administration than we, and perhaps he, would have suspected.

Aaron The Accordionist, Joey Adams, the comedian, and Francis W. H. Adams, a member of the Board of Advisors of the New York Committee for Democratic Voters (commonly known as the Lehman-Roosevelt group) would all have places in Washington. So would some 250 people named Abrams . . .

Also in 1961 “The New America: Politics and Society in the Age of the Smooth Deal” by Karl E. Meyer reprinted the quotation: 3

“I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty,” Mr. Buckley has said—though it looks as if his worst fear is being realized.

In 1963 Buckley included an instance in his book “Rumbles Left and Right: A Book about Troublesome People and Ideas”. He specified the city of Boston, Massachusetts for the directory, and he also elaborated on his reasoning: 4

I am obliged to confess that I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University. Not, heaven knows, because I hold lightly the brainpower or knowledge or generosity or even the affability of the Harvard faculty: but because I greatly fear intellectual arrogance, and that is a distinguishing characteristic of the university which refuses to accept any common premise.

In April 1963 the reviewer of Buckley’s book in “The New York Times” included a compressed and rephrased version of the quotation: 5

William F. Buckley Jr., publisher of the weekly, The National Review, says that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone book than by the Harvard faculty.

In 1965 Buckley ran for the position of Mayor of New York, and “The New York Times” published a profile containing some quotations: 6

The flamboyant Buckley approach results in typically pungent remarks like these:

On Averell Harriman: “The man who can accomplish less in more time than anybody else in America.”

On intellectuals and government: “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.”

Variants have proliferated over the years. For example, in 1991 “The Wall Street Journal” printed an instance with “100 people” instead of “2,000 people”: 7

William F. Buckley once said he’d rather be ruled by the first 100 people in the Boston phone book than the Harvard faculty. For our part, we’d rather be ruled by the first 100 names on the Harvard faculty than the crew now running Washington.

In conclusion, William F. Buckley Jr. did make this remark. The earliest instance known to QI appeared in Esquire in 1961. He also wrote a slightly different version in a book he published in 1963.

Image Notes: Illustration of rotary telephone and directory book from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Picture of William F. Buckley circa 1985 taken by SPC 5 Bert Goulait, US Military; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Thanks to previous researchers who located valuable citations beginning in 1963, i.e., Ralph Keyes of “The Quote Verifier”, Fred R. Shapiro of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, and Barry Popik of “The Big Apple”.)

Notes:

  1. 1961 January, Esquire magazine, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Portrait of a Complainer by Dan Wakefield, Quote Page 50, Esquire, Inc., New York. (Verified with microfilm)
  2. 1961 April 13, The Reporter: The Magazine of Facts and Ideas, Volume 24, Number 8, Edited and published by Max Ascoli, The Reporter’s Notes: The First Shall Be First, Start Page 9, Quote Page 9 and 10, The Reporter Magazine Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1961 Copyright, The New America: Politics and Society in the Age of the Smooth Deal by Karl E. Meyer, Quote page 143, Basic Books, New York.(Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1963 Copyright, Rumbles Left and Right: A Book about Troublesome People and Ideas by William F. Buckley, Quote Page 134, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  5. 1963 April 28, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, All That Is Out of Joint and Needs Setting Right by Richard L. Strout, (Book Review of Rumbles Left and Right by William F. Buckley), Quote Page 3, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  6. 1965 September 5, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Magazine, Very Dark Horse In New York by John Leo, Start Page SM8, Quote Page SM36, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 1991 November 22, Wall Street Journal, Review and Outlook: It’s a Quota Bill, Quote Page A12, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)