I came to him when I was still a teenager, through television. You might be surprised at how many people found him this way. He published millions of words of commentary and rumination, on a startling range of subjects, in high-circulation newspapers and the slickest magazines. He pulled off a dozen widely publicized stunts--running for mayor of New York, deep-sea diving to the remains of the Titanic, playing Bach with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. Over a span of 30 years he let loose a stream of novels, many of them bestsellers. Yet what really made him famous--what made him the butt of impersonators like David Frye and Robin Williams, set him up for the cover of Time and the bold-face celebrity treatment in the gossip columns--was a TV show.
Firing Line debuted in 1966, when all that America's TV-starved youth had to choose from were the three networks, maybe a local station or two, and an outlet for what was still called "educational television." By the time of Firing Line's final episode, in 1999, the whiskers were showing. The original running time of one hour had been reduced by half. As viewership fell and "pick-up"--the number of local PBS stations that aired the show--declined, producers tried a number of gimmicks to freshen it up and revive interest, without much success. Various interlocutors, among them the TV journalist Jeff Greenfield and the leftwing politician Mark Green, were brought in, to serve as quasi-hosts. For a time, the pundit Michael Kinsley anchored the show and reduced Buckley to the role of mere interviewer. When your liveliest gimmick involves Michael Kinsley, the end is near.
The show by then was an anachronism, both in its format and its ambition. Firing Line was a creature of the middlebrow--that long-gone impulse of the mid-20th century popular culture that tried to orient a mass audience toward learning, intellectual sophistication, and cultural uplift. The airwaves were filled with middlebrow fare, in between showings of Leave it to Beaver and The $64,000 Question. A lot of middlebrow stuff was dopey--try, if you dare, to watch such earnest, humorless teleplays as 12 Angry Men all the way through. Some of it proved provocative in conception and deadly in execution--the TV host David Susskind once had a weekly show called Open End, in which he would convene a panel of guests and engage them in conversation for several hours, with no set time limit, till everyone got bored and stopped talking.
But a lot of the middlebrow was wonderful, reflecting a high, if implausible, opinion of the public's taste and aspirations. Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts were one example and Firing Line was another. Buckley's original format was stripped bare: two chairs, a table, Buckley himself, with his clipboard and pen, and a guest, who would carry on a conversation for the full hour, at (in retrospect) an almost unimaginable level of cleverness. Unavoidably, there was punditry and commentary on the crises of the day--Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Watergate, Jimmy Carter--but Buckley and Firing Line also brought us Rebecca West talking about the nature of treason, Stephen Spender on poetry, Eudora Welty on southern literature, Kingsley Amis on humor, Fulton Sheen on Augustine, and Gunnar Myrdal and Malcolm Muggeridge and B. F. Skinner and Walker Percy . . . for an hour at a time, without commercials.
A particular favorite was Mortimer Adler, the freelance philosopher and Great Books maven, himself the purest embodiment of the middlebrow impulse of the fifties and sixties. When Buckley published a book of Firing Line transcripts in 1989, he closed its 500 pages with Adler discoursing on the traditional proofs of God's existence. Imagine Bill O'Reilly sitting across from Mortimer Adler:
WFB: You take us into the uniqueness of the word "God," and I wonder whether in that particular section of your book you might be accused of a formal subjectivity.
ADLER: I think not. Here I am most greatly indebted to that marvelous eleventh-century archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm. Anselm said, If you're going to think about God, your mind obliges you to think about a being than which no greater can be thought of. That's binding on the mind.
WFB: The ontological argument?
ADLER: No, we're not here arguing for God's existence. This is an argument about what you must think when you think about God.
I suppose quotes like that might be misleading. Firing Line wasn't a graduate seminar or a ladies' tea. The show was conceived, and rose to its greatest popularity, at a time when conservatives of any kind were an oddity in all broadcast media beyond the Sunday morning sermonette. Buckley delighted in his uniqueness and capitalized on it. In the early days of the show, his friend Alistair Cooke wrote, "He seemed to be setting himself up each time as a prosecutor more than a moderator. . . . In his role as gadfly of the liberals, he often, even in introducing them, put them on the defensive from the start." For that reason many prominent pols, most famously Robert Kennedy, refused invitations to appear. Buckley himself admitted that the show on many occasions was a "bare-knuckled intellectual brawl."
Nowadays, by contrast, the favorite cliché that critics and admirers alike use for cable talk shows is "an intellectual foodfight." Forgive me if I press the point too far, but the contrast in metaphors is telling. Foodfights are pointlessly messy and no one gets hurt; in a bare-knuckled brawl the stakes are higher. One is manly, the other is mostly for show.
The old etiquette says we are not to speak ill of the dead. But pondering the dead sometimes invites us to speak ill of the living, or at least compare the living unfavorably to their predecessors, and this is irresistible when it comes to Buckley in his capacity as TV star. He flourished in an era before someone decided that what TV news shows really needed was . . . sound effects. Firing Line only reminds us how impoverished television talk has become now that there's so much of it. The trajectory of the popular intellect in America can be traced quite explicitly from Firing Line down to Hardball and Keith Olbermann. For that matter, the aspirations of American conservatism can be traced quite vividly in the downward arc from Bill Buckley to . . . take your pick.
The kind of wonderful talk that Firing Line specialized in requires a particular kind of wisdom and self-restraint. For the talk to be good, you have to know when to stop talking--to know when some things aren't worth saying, and that if something can't be said well it may be best left unsaid. Buckley elevated the medium of television by knowing its limitations. This hit me strongly when, through a fluke, I attended the taping of the last episode of Firing Line. The setting was unglamorous, in a shabby studio in the bowels of an office building in lower Manhattan, but for someone who had watched the show as a teenager, mystified and entranced by all these chatty and charming and sometimes angry, sometimes funny people, it was a bittersweet privilege to witness the thing being wrapped up for good.
Buckley's final guests were a collection of youngerish journalists and pols from the generation following his own. Buckley got off several nice lines--"Tell me, Mark," he said to Green, "you've been on the show nearly 100 times. Have you learned anything yet?"--but the moment I remember most vividly came after Ted Koppel arrived with an entourage from ABC. Koppel commandeered the set and subjected Buckley to a valedictory interview. The conversation wandered and after several minutes limped to its close.
"Mr. Buckley," Koppel said, "we have 10 seconds left. Could you sum up in 10 seconds?"
"No," Buckley said.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.