Fired Up, Dumbed Down? William F. Buckley and the Decline of Political Discourse

Published in MIT’s The Tech

“From Firing Line to The O’Reilly Factor” – Heather Hendershot, CMS/W Colloquium Series, October 22, 2015

Lamenting the state of American political discourse is a popular refrain at present, and it’s not hard to see why. At a time when offensive statements from the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson serve not as campaign-ending gaffes but as anabolic steroids for the presidential horse-race; when blowhard cable news anchors generate much heat but little light on the issues de l’heure; and when social media has opened up a whole new realm for shocking anger and abuse, the desire to tune out of political speech altogether and only pay attention biennially and briefly has never been stronger. MIT Professor Heather Hendershot’s forthcoming book, Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line — which she introduced at an Oct. 22 colloquium — could not be more timely, with its simple central question: how, exactly, did it come to this?

Hendershot’s entrepôt is William F. Buckley, whose weekly Firing Line debate show ran from 1966 to 1999, clocking up literally thousands of episodes. Buckley is a curious, paradoxical anti-hero for the story, the sort of unreconstructed country-club conservative who at first glance seems hopelessly passé, until one considers the contemporary popularity of Kevin Spacey’s genteel-tarheel Machiavel on House of Cards. Buckley’s screen presence in the role of host of Firing Line doesn’t feel entirely mammalian: his facial features are frequently contorted with sardonic disdain, and the unnervingly lizard-like lick of his lips suggests a hearty appetite for rhetorical combat.

Buckley’s guest list reads like a who’s who of pioneering American thinkers of the era, from Noam Chomsky and Norman Mailer to Germain Greer and Allen Ginsberg. As this list suggests, many of Buckley’s interlocutors were radicals of the American left, and herein lies the rub. Buckley was not, at root, a television “personality” in our modern understanding of the term, but rather an intellectual of the Right, willing and (more than) able to debate and defend his own conservative thought in the face of the best that post-’60s American liberalism had to throw at him.

As Hendershot argues, from a political-philosophical standpoint there is plenty of virtue to be viewed on Firing Line. Open, rigorous, intellectual combat is the root of informed decision-making in the public at large, and it’s easy to feel that the drift towards today’s sloganistic, soundbitten landscape has depended on a fundamental lack of thoughtful, coherent debate. One need only note retronymic terms like “longform,” “think-piece,” and “explainer” now used to denote what were, until recently, relatively standard forms of news and opinion to share Hendershot’s sense that standards have decidedly slipped.

Hendershot is careful not to slip into nostalgia about halcyon days-gone-by: after all, the era Buckley’s show covered was replete with seismic strife and division, from the riots in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic Convention, through Watergate in the ’70s and Iran-Contra in the ’80s. Yet it is hard to dispute the significance Hendershot attributes to Firing Line as a platform for sober debate, no matter what the political weather.

Nonetheless, the wider role of the enigmatic Buckley in American political discourse offers some cause for pause. Though learned and largely respectful, Buckley was nonetheless an ideologue, one of the great architects of the resurgence of American conservatism, which rose from the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964 to power Ronald Reagan’s revolution in 1980. Of course, far from diminishing its impact, Buckley’s right-wing iconoclasm was what gave his show an edge.

Yet even if, as Hendershot argues, a revival of the long-form rigor of Firing Line would serve as an antidote to today’s lightweight, soundbite-heavy political culture, it’s nonetheless possible to see in Buckley some of the seeds of that. The right-wing revival that Buckley helped bring about can trace as one of its ideological successors Fox News, one of (though not the only) black holes of political discourse today. Moreover, as the fantastic recent documentary Best of Enemies depicts, Buckley’s gloves-off debates with Gore Vidal in 1968, which climaxed with his threat to “sock [Vidal] in the goddamn face” after being dubbed a “crypto-Nazi,” might even make Roger Ailes blush were it aired today.

The tension between the view of Buckley as a modern-day Socrates, eruditely engaging with opponents and espousing a considered and consistent ideology, and as the fulminating forbear of today’s knockabout political culture, is hard to reconcile. Yet Hendershot convincingly argues, without a hint of hagiography, that Buckley’s decades-long Firing Line project stands as testament to his genuine commitment to furthering rigorous debate, something which feels in desperately short supply today.

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