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.
.. 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.
.. 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?”
.. 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.
.. 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 prevent the 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
.. 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.”
.. “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 . . .)
.. 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.