William F. Buckley Jr. was a funny kind of writer, one who really found his voice on television, of all media. Margaret Hoover, sometime Fox News commentator and Bush-administration figure, will now attempt to rediscover something like that voice as PBS reconstitutes Firing Line.
But Firing Line without William F. Buckley?
Buckley never wrote a heavy book; instead, he was a master of the 800-word column, and, for all of legendary vocabulary, at his best in brief plain English: “Demand a recount,” “Cancel your own goddam subscription,” “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.” He published 34 nonfiction books and collections, four travel books, twelve spy novels, eight other novels, and thousands of columns. He wrote countless speeches and carried on an enormous correspondence and edited the most important American political magazine of his time, but it was Firing Line that made him a household name. Buckley hosted Firing Line longer than Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show — 33 years.
The reincarnation of Firing Line comes at an interesting time, and a needful one. Television is a great reducer and a great simplifier, an enemy of complexity and depth. Buckley’s great achievement was in elevating television to fit his intellectual agenda rather than fitting himself to the demands of the medium. Firing Line was in fact one of the most un-television-y things in the history of television. But it worked.
In the second half of the 20th century, television was almost precisely the opposite of what it is today: The entertainment programming was almost uniformly mindless — Bonanza, Bewitched, Gomer Pyle USMC— but there was an audience for high-quality public-affairs programming. (Not a huge audience.) Now, we have excellent television dramas and endless first-rate documentaries . . . and Sean Hannity, who combines the subtlety of Father Coughlin with the wit and originality of late-period Three’s Company. And that daft malignancy is Solon compared to the social-media gang and the cable-news B-list. Relaunching Firing Line in this environment is bold.
It is amusing to imagine Buckley et al. pitching the original Firing Line to the Fox News Channel:
“Firing Line! I like it! Bang! Ka-pow! Graphics!”
“I thought we might open with J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.”
“. . .”
“In F major.”
“How about Ted Nugent? Wango tango!”
The thing about Firing Line — the thing that is missing from our current political debate — is that it was a genuine conversation. Not that Buckley was Mr. Nice Guy — far from it. As a debater, he was predatory — but the other guy got his say, too. Rhetorically, Buckley took no prisoners. Debating the Reverend Jesse Jackson on the subject of drug legalization (Buckley for, Jackson against), he offered this guidance: “I would hope we emancipate ourselves from the superstition that that which is legal is necessarily honorable. It’s perfectly legal to contract syphilis, but it doesn’t mean that society is in favor of syphilis. For that matter, it’s perfectly legal to vote for Jesse Jackson — that doesn’t make it reputable, does it?”
Christopher Hitchens advised his fellow radicals that they’d never get a more open or fairer hearing than on Firing Line.
You know who would be pariahs in our current environment of disgust-mongering and Salemesque moral hysteria? Jesse Jackson, who once described New York City with a Jewish slur, and William F. Buckley Jr., who suggested that HIV carriers be identified with discreet tattoos on their forearms and buttocks. (Forearms with an eye toward the protection of intravenous drug users, the other intended to “alert the prospective partner to the danger of proceeding as had been planned.”) They would be candidates for what today goes by the polite name “de-platforming.” But rather than try to silence those whose views he himself found abhorrent, Buckley put them on television’s most prestigious public-affairs program. He was a devout Christian who helped bring the evangelical atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair to wider attention, a conservative and a patriot who brought Noam Chomsky, Saul Alinsky, and Huey P. Newton into the living rooms of intelligent Americans — not as a freak show, but in the pursuit of genuine democratic discourse. (Allen Ginsberg playing the harmonium and reverently chanting “Hare Krishna” was a little bit of a freak show.) Christopher Hitchens advised his fellow radicals that they’d never get a more open or fairer hearing than on Firing Line, and he was right about that.
The new Firing Line presents an opportunity for revitalized discourse in an era dominated by antidiscourse — which is to say, communication that is designed to preventthe exchange of information and ideas rather than to enable it. Antidiscourse is the stock in trade of the arsonists at Berkeley and the screamers at Yale, of Professor Melissa Click and her campus goon squad, of conspiracy nuts right and left, cable-news rage monkeys, the mediocrities who earn their livings by shouting “racist!” and “sexist!” at everything their sponsors find disagreeable.
There is a better way to conduct the public conversation. For example, Buckley could simply have denounced the segregationist Democrat George Wallace when he was getting ready for his third-party presidential run in 1968. It would have been easy to do, given the richness of the material. A different kind of man in a different time might have simply done a mocking, Jon Stewart–style montage of Wallace’s grossest offenses, ridiculing him at arm’s length, or made a self-serving self-righteous spectacle congratulating himself for “not giving a platform to hate.” Such grandstanding might have been tempting to Buckley, who earlier in his own public career had got it terribly wrong on the racial situation in the South and had some amends to make.
Buckley’s televised intellectual vivisection of Wallace was instead a genuine public service, dragging into the light that which preferred to fester in dark places. (“I feel he occupies a position roughly equivalent to Huey Long,” Buckley later told Stars and Stripes. “Huey Long embarrassed a lot of Democrats because he was saying the kind of things a lot of left Democrats wanted said but saying them uncouthly.” Plus ça change . . .)
Firing Line was popular in its way, but it was not exactly populist. (A little over ten years ago, I told a relative in Texas that I was going to work for National Review. He paused for a long moment and then asked: “Is that the one with that ol’ boy from New York who talks like a queer?”) Serious discussion is a niche product. It’s not for everybody. If you need a testament to the shallowness of our time, read the letters section in the New York Times, and then consider that that half-literate drivel is what was selected by the editors. Imagine what was passed over.
So, Hoover has her work cut out for her. The inaugural episode (talking about poverty programs with Paul Ryan) revealed her as a better conversationalist than teleprompter reader, interested in asking serious questions. It’s a good start.
Much of what gave Cold War–era conservatism its moral and intellectual urgency is, blessedly, gone. We won. But the Reagan era — and the Buckley era — has passed.
Like the Velvet Underground, Firing Line was important more for the composition of its audience than for the size of it. Buckley had a gift for reaching the people F. A. Hayek called “second-hand dealers in ideas.” As Hayek saw it, there is at one end of the intellectual spectrum a small number of unique geniuses and truly original thinkers, and at the other is the vast demos, whose members are mainly concerned with the ordinary business of daily life. Both of those groups are, practically speaking, beyond intellectual influence. In between are the second-tier intellectuals, journalists, academics, business leaders, managers of cultural institutions, and the rest of the people who are sometimes referred to as “thought leaders” even though they are much more “thought followers.” To the extent that mass politics talks about ideas at all, that’s whom it is talking to. Conservatives, ensorcelled by the prospect of becoming a populist mass movement, recently have neglected that kind of outreach.
You can never have the same party twice. And much of what gave Cold War–era conservatism its moral and intellectual urgency is — blessedly — gone. We won. But the Reagan era — and the Buckley era — has passed. Reverence and affection are virtues that can congeal into the vice of nostalgia, something that no doubt does not need explaining to a Republican bearing the surname “Hoover.” What has not passed is our need for serious and substantial conversation about the things that matter most in our public life. And that’s worth pursuing, under Firing Line or any other name.