A Civil Action

a review by James Como (December 2016)


Heather Hendershot, Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on The Firing Line
Broadside Books, 2016.  357pp.  $28.99.


Over my seventy years I’ve admired a number of public figures but have given my heart (so to speak) only to two, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, Jr. The answer to the question, Why these two? is simple, though not so simple as to offer it here; fortunately, with respect to my fondness for Buckley, I don’t have to, for Heather Hendershot has provided one definitive answer. Having taught public discourse for fifty years at the college level, including courses on argument, the media of mass communication and on ethics and the freedom of speech, and having spilled some ink on the topic of responsible speech, I welcome a book that examines the Buckley I admired. Certainly my youthful and inchoate center-right political disposition was nourished and focused by him and those many others whom he catalyzed, but his ability to do so with wit, civility and, above all, reason – especially as debate against the toughest opposition – was my meat. No one has been a greater avatar of rational public discourse than he.

Basing her work on archival research, interviews (by the way, as the long-time managing editor of National Review, Linda Bridges was hardly undifferentiated “staff”), correspondence, transcriptions and a wagon-load of secondary matter, Hendershot, a well-published professor of film and media at M.I.T., provides three-hundred-and eight notes and a rich index of seventeen pages preceded by a Preface (“The Making of William F. Buckley, Jr.”), an Introduction (“The Making of Firing Line”), six chapters (each on a Big Topic), and a Conclusion (“In Praise of Honest Intellectual Combat”). I saw a few hundred of the 1500+ Firing Line episodes (the last coming in 1999),[1] so I can report that Hendershot covers representative ground and is largely even-handed (notwithstanding a few trots on hobby horses with Firing Line as a prop).  

The Introduction is strong, providing the first strokes of twin portraits, the first being that of the poised, generous, unsparing, brilliant patrician, on the one hand, and of his program on the other. Moving from Norman Thomas’s rude appearance and Al Capp’s rant, to the first use (she suspects) of ‘fuck’ on broadcast TV, and on to her description of the origins of the program, its varying formats (audience Q&A evolved into a panel format, Buckley’s one-on-one becoming the template with an occasional two-hour debate baked in), Hendershot begins that second portrait with a short history of the post-Goldwater (1966) environment. She readies the launch into her six chapters by citing the prominent, pompous and influential political bigot Richard Hofstadter, who “had famously attributed right-wing political thinking to paranoia, anti-intellectualism and ‘status anxiety’,” then adding “whether you thought [Buckley’s] politics were brilliant or abhorrent, [he] seemed to be walking, talking proof of the insufficiency of Hofstadter’s claim.”  Insufficiency indeed.

These are the chapters: 1/ Forging a New image for the Right [Conservatism], 2/ Apodictic All the Way Through [Communism], 3/ From “We Shall Overcome” to “Shoot, Don’t Loot” [Black Power], 4/ Chivalrous Pugilism [Women’s Lib], 5/ Tripping Over Tricky Dick [Nixon], and 6/ From the Mashed Potato Circuit to the Oval Office [Ronald Reagan]. Along the way Hendershot gives full faith and credit to Buckley’s arguments (on the rising national debt under Reagan, for example) and is often impatient with liberal potshots (for example, from Michael Kinsley). Buckley is what he is, a complex, watch-like, precision axel that allows this new wheel to roll fluently through fresh television territory – ideological, polemical, political, religious, even personal – no matter the variety or number of spokes attached.

Although not all of Buckley’s guests were of the Left, the preponderance were, and Buckley held no truck with low hanging fruit, for as Hendershot makes clear over and again he craved (not too strong a word) substantive debate: a clash of ideas forcefully, intelligently, and adroitly engaged. So on the firing line were the likes of  Noam Chomsky, Eldridge Cleaver, Germaine Greer, Norman Thomas, Betty Friedan, Christopher Hitchens, Ed Koch, Helen Pilpel (the most frequent female guest) and Allard Lowenstein (a favorite and a friend),  as well as interrogators such as Jeff Greenfield (who virtually grew up on the show) and Michael Kinsley (whom Hendershot, like Buckley, somehow does not find insufferable), along with Phyllis Shlafley, Barry Goldwater, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and others on the Right. Hendershot brings alive, not only their moment – reminding those of us old enough to remember those days just what was at stake (while those not old enough get a history lesson rich in detail and analysis) – but their presence too: these were consequential people who fired back. They and their ideas mattered, and most of them had . . . style. In short, we encounter them in full.

In April of 1966 my anticipation of the first program ran high, but I would be disappointed: Norman Thomas proved incorrigible, not ideologically (who didn’t already know that?) but as a conversationalist. He simply didn’t understand that a clash of ideas is not a clash of persons or that a host – like a guest – has certain duties. But there was no surprise when Barry Goldwater appeared; he was as boring as ever. Buckley wanted to examine the egregious misrepresentations of Goldwater, but he virtually ignored that question, focusing instead on how the party had abandoned him. Notwithstanding sound predictions, much common ground, and a mild surprise (Goldwater agreed with King that the non-enforcement of civil rights laws was outrageous), the program went . . . nowhere. On the other hand there was Eldridge Cleaver, both of them (appearing years apart, of course), first the radical Black Separatist, second the Christian convert – and Republican: “after I ran into the Egyptian police and the Algerian police and the North Korean police and the Nigerian police and Idi Amin’s police in Uganda, I began to miss the Oakland police.” He was in sharp contrast with Betty Friedan, the godmother of Women’s Lib, whose “you know” mantra, according to Hendershot, showed that Betty “simply didn’t have the chops for TV.” In further contrast to Friedan was Germaine Greer, who had both the TV and the intellectual chops to take on Buckley, whom she called “a very pretty man” in their Cambridge Union debate.

Hendershot quotes amply from the transcripts, often contextualizing, analyzing and opining along the way. Buckley enjoyed the labor reporter (who was blinded by the mob) Victor Riesel, who reminisced about an airline strike, “we had a ball, Bill. We would get on a train . . . [and have] and extra drink or two” – at each stop along the way to Los Angeles. Four drinks at the Pump Room? Said Buckley, “every time I think of George Meany that’s exactly what I’m driven to.”  Hendershot clearly enjoys describing Buckley’s defense of Daniel Ellsberg against the theft of his private psychiatric records and, in describing Buckley’s objections to certain FBI activities, quotes Buckley as saying (with respect to wire-tapping Martin Luther King, Jr.), “I think this is really shocking, the notion that the president of the United States has the right to know about the sex life of anybody.” Hendershot spends much time on Buckley and civil rights, emphasizing that Black Power advocates got a very fair shake on the program. She especially enjoys the thoughtful and very funny Godfrey Cambridge, who “offered a brilliant less-is-more performance” (in contrast to the fatuous Jesse Jackson). 

Hendershot’s left-leaning slip shows most with two acts, one of omission the other of commission. She allows that Buckley’s favorite episodes were his interview with Malcolm Muggeridge, his re-broadcast conversation with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and his debate with Ronald Reagan over the return of the Panama Canal to Panama; yet she gives us virtually nothing about Buckley’s exchanges with Muggeridge and Solzhenitsyn, instead using both to score points against both Buckley (by way of a snide quotations from his son) and Reagan. She never insults either, and very briefly gives the Russian his due, but the praise is faint. She has dealt fairly with Buckley on Nixon and with Buckley on the Religious Right, because, I think, she shares his distaste for both. But she does not share his fondness for Reagan or for Reagan’s success, and it shows in her penultimate chapter. Not only does she take a pot-shot or two of her own but has surrogates (Nancy Mitford, of all people) do the same. Worse, she shows no knowledge of the books that have come out by Reagan since his death: speeches, letters, and (above all) his radio transcripts, all of which show enormous policy command and all of which he wrote.

Alas, both the viewing and live audiences would peter out, but over the long run my high anticipation for that first episode was fully vindicated. In her Conclusion Hendershot reviews TV talk programming preceding Firing Line, finding that, even in a better age than our cable one, Buckley stood way out. She ends the book with a quotation from Mortimer Adler (1983): “understanding comes first. People who disagree with what they don’t understand are impertinent, and people who agree with what they don’t understand are inane. . . . inanity and impertinence rule the roost most of the time. . . .” A fine way to end, but for my own I prefer to go back to Hendershot’s beginning.

She allows in her Preface that she is a liberal who disagrees with most of Buckley’s positions, and still her appreciation of our first “TV intellectual” (she appreciates the oxymoron) is unabashed. This holds true even when, in her acute and even-handed rhetorical analysis, she (rightly) judges Buckley to have lost his 1965 Cambridge debate with James Baldwin; though he lost, Buckley was, she writes, “temperate . . . passionate but not unhinged . . . polished and sophisticated” and had “acknowledged the immorality of racism and rejected its practice in America.” Her treatment of Buckley’s New York mayoralty run in 1965 is just as disinterested (unlike her treatment of the eighties, when she tends towards the febrile). She quotes Norman Mailer: “it must also be said that no one could have been more majestically suited for spoiling [his opponent’s] Lindsay’s campaign.” (Her anecdote about the ad agency that wanted to contribute at cost a series of alliterative ads is worth the price of the book.) 

And she delights in displaying Buckley’s favoring rich conversation, as when she describes his visit with the left-wing Christopher Hitchins and R. Emmett Tyrrell, a conservative neo-lion. The young man couldn’t keep up, finally being ignored by Buckley. It was Hitchens who would visit the show five times. She gives a special place of honor to Buckley’s reversal programs: he would invite liberals – Ed Koch, Jeff Greenfield, Morton Kondracke and others – to grill him. When Kondracke moved to The McLaughlin Group, he called that show “the beginning of the end of civil discourse . . . if not the beginning of the end of Western Civilization.” 

St. James does admonish that “the tongue is also a fire.” Alas, as a society we have forgotten that and Lord Moulton’s Domain of Manners, which lies between the absolutely free and the absolutely regulated. It is the domain requiring “obedience to the unenforceable.” It is the domain that reminds us that our Logos – that which separates us from all other animals – is a gift. That is why I intensely share in the lament that ends Hendershot’s Preface: “There seems to be very little space for political opponents to sit down and talk” – the tip of the iceberg only, in my view – “Restoring genteel notions of civility to TV will not provide a magic cure for all that ails us politically today,” not least because (I believe) there is scarcely any “mainstream media,” and that because there is scarcely a main stream. Hendershot adds, “but Firing Line offers a model for what smart political TV once was”: refreshing and welcome, and the reason this timely and irresistibly engaging book matters.


[1] For perspective: Gunsmoke aired 635 episodes, Law and Order 456. Firing Line remains the longest running public affairs show with a single host in the history of American televsion.


James Como is the author, most recently, of The Tongue is Also a Fire: essays on conversation, rhetoric and the transmission of culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015).


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