REVIEW: William Buckley and the Golden Age of Intellectual Conservatism

Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line by Heather Hendershot

Broadside Books 432 pp. $28.99

By Jim Swearingen

The din of political punditry has been deafening lately. That is not news. The self-validating banter that has passed for political dialogue on cable TV has done little to create a commonality among the citizenry. That, too, is well known. Yet almost no one has offered an idea of how to remedy this state of affairs, until now.

Open to Debate, Heather Hendershot’s new book, carefully documents William F. Buckley’s Socratic engagement with the Left over 33 years of his public affairs television talk show, Firing Line.  And she proposes that just such a niche program be resurrected to resuscitate our stillborn political discourse.

As Hendershot shows, Buckley’s mission on Firing Line—and in the pages of his magazine, The National Review—was to trim the wacky fringe from conservatism, to separate a serious political ideology from the flat-Earther types that populated conservative talk radio in the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s. The agenda of the show was, in no small measure, to give voice and legitimacy to Buckley’s brand of anti-communist conservatism and to do so in an articulate and civilized manner.

Open to Debate is divided into chapters dealing with many of the issues and personalities that roiled the nation when Buckley held sway. Right-wing extremism, communism, black power, women’s liberation, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan all make significant appearances.  The book tracks the arc of American conservatism’s slow rise to power, focusing almost exclusively on Firing Line’s political debates.

Hendershot’s chronicle is, among other things, a brilliant compendium of political repartee, a catalogue of Buckley matching wits with some of the best minds of his day. The book’s title is apt, because not only were all ideas on Buckley’s show open for discussion, but the man himself was open to debating any question — political, social, or economic.

The essence of the show, as Hendershot notes, was a “a thrilla in Manila for debate team nerds.”  Anyone who enjoys spirited,  quick-witted political discussion will revel in her research. Hendershot, an avowed liberal, is rarely swayed by Buckley’s arguments, but lauds his eagerness to engage virtually every social cause of the ‘60’s and 70’s at a time when the three major networks resisted doing so in any depth.

The irony is rich that the father of modern conservatism would provide a serious forum for activists and thinkers on the left who were either either too radical or too esoteric to get mainstream television coverage.  Hendershot describes one of the episodes most emblematic of the show’s audacity, which featured black separatist and self-described racist Milton Henry, flanked by two bodyguards in olive fatigues and black berets. Henry and Buckley crossed swords over Henry’s proposal to create an all-black republic out of five former Confederate states and his call for whites to commit suicide to alleviate black oppression.

Surreal though the encounter was, both men maintained a civil, if adamant, demeanor with one another and both found points on which they were in complete agreement—something perilously rare in the gladiatorial climate of modern cable TV. The episode, which aired in 1968, was informative and absent any of the confrontational theatrics that pundits now employ to assert their on-air dominance.

On a tacky, local-access caliber studio set, with a conversation-quelling doorbell signaling commercial breaks, and a studio audience comprised of high school and college students often sitting on the floor, William F. Buckley parried with the liveliest and most contentious figures of a troubled era in America. And like the skilled Yale debater that he was, he listened to his opponents to better understand them.

Buckley’s preppy air of ennui and ostentatious displays of vocabulary—often deployed to flummox his opponents— could be irritating (particularly to liberals), but his discourse was lightyears ahead of the crass, and often intellect-free brand of flame-throwing that passes for political discourse today.

Buckley could also be fastidious in his choice of conservative guests. Strict segregationists and evangelicals, for example, were too radical and often ill-spoken to appear frequently on Firing Line. Hendershot peppers her book with excerpts from the show in which Buckley’s warmly welcomed right-wing guests could not keep up with the host’s fast-paced analysis. As she points out more than once, daft argumentation and shallow thinking were greater sins on Firing Line than embracing liberalism, feminism, or black power.

Buckley had an intellectual rigor and integrity, Hendershot argues, that gave no quarter to mental lightweights, whatever their party affiliation. And he was loathe to entertain sloppy thinking just to strengthen conservatism’s brand. That was the rub for Buckley: arguments had to be cogent, not convenient. He was more at home with serious minds than sympathetic ones.

Hendershot’s book closes by advocating for a new Firing Line that would allow for calm, reasoned, and respectful debate over the issues that divide us. She floats several possible candidates to fill Buckley’s shoes, among them Jon Stewart. An exploration of his uncut interviews for the Daily Show, she argues, reveals the the liberal comic to be also a thoughtful debater and a respectful listener to all sides.

It may seem naive, especially in these times, to propose that Democrats and Republicans hear one another’s ideas. Radicals have generally not made good listeners, whether in 1968 or in 2017, whatever side of the spectrum they are on. But, at some point listening is exactly what will be required to heal our culture of frenetic upheaval.

Lenin believed the capitalists would sell him the rope with which to hang them. In our own time, the profit-driven urge to provide entertaining public affairs programming has largely turned the informative into the hysterical, into the very strident lunacy that William F. Buckley worked tirelessly to banish from conservatism. And our Republic is now suffering the strangulating effects of that irrationality on our politics.

The news media have from their earliest days been pulled in two directions, toward education and entertainment, but that struggle has, in recent days, been squarely resolved in favor of the circus over the debating hall. Heather Hendershot ventures that the spirit of the father of modern conservatism might just lead us to higher ground.

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.