Author Topic: On TV, Buckley Led Urbane Debating Club  (Read 730 times)

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Offline Wretched Excess

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On TV, Buckley Led Urbane Debating Club
« on: March 01, 2008, 06:51:21 PM »
On TV, Buckley Led Urbane Debating Club

The relationship of William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” to the partisan shoutfests that pass for evening political exchange on television nowadays?

Well, as Mr. Buckley, who loved debate for debate’s sake and who died on Wednesday at 82, might have appreciated, one could argue it both ways.

On the one hand, “Firing Line,” which was originally syndicated by WOR-TV in New York and was broadcast from 1966 to 1999, was an obvious precursor to shrill modern-era programming like “Hardball,” “Tucker,” “Hannity and Colmes” and “Scarborough Country.”

“It was the first of all those shows,” said Michael Kinsley, the left-leaning journalist and regular guest on “Firing Line.”

On the other hand, “Firing Line” was so different in tone and pacing from its descendants that one might almost say that it stands as their inverse — their antithesis (Mr. Buckley was fond of a four-syllable word when two syllables would do), a counterfactual, even. That is to say, a condition that cannot — owing to the present-day climates of television and politics — be fulfilled.

“The show was devoted to a leisurely examination of issues and ideas at an extremely high level,” said Jeff Greenfield of CBS News, another pundit who frequently debated Mr. Buckley on the program. “It’s not at all like what you see now, where everybody says, ‘Who won the week?’ or ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, rate Hillary’s chances.’ ”

Over 33 years, the list of guests on “Firing Line” was impressive and very much bipartisan: Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Clare Boothe Luce and Henry A. Kissinger on the right. Muhammad Ali, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Jimmy Carter and William M. Kunstler on the left. There were also, of course, people who, by dint of political or personal conviction, would not appear on “Firing Line.”

“I was never on his show,” Gore Vidal, with whom Mr. Buckley had a famous feud, said on Thursday. “I don’t like fascism much.”

He added: “I was one of the first people he asked. And, of course, I refused to be on it. And, of course, he lied about it afterward.”

Even so, an awful lot of people who chose to engage with Mr. Buckley on “Firing Line” emerged from the experience fond of him.

In 1981, when the show celebrated 15 years on the air, former guests including Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Mr. Kissinger and Louis Auchincloss honored him with a party at the New York Yacht Club.

“ ‘Firing Line’ is one of the rare occasions when you have a chance to correct the errors of the man who’s interrogating you,” John Kenneth Galbraith said that night.

Mr. Buckley’s manners were classy, if not perfect. He insisted on addressing his guests as “Mr.” Or “Mrs.,” though he once accidentally called Mrs. Thatcher “Margaret” because he thought she’d called him “Bill.” (When, upon reading a transcript of the episode, he realized she had been referring to a bill of legislation, he was extremely embarrassed, said Richard Brookhiser, a conservative writer and a frequent guest on the program.)

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Firing Line was the only reason that I was opposed to cutting government funding for PBS.