Thursday, August 24, 2006

I Miss William Buckley

As Katie Couric prepares to take over at CBS, my thoughts have turned to William F. Buckley Jr.

When I was a kid, Buckley was the most public intellectual in the country, not because of anything he had written (and he had written plenty by this time, including his notorious anti-left screed God and Man at Yale) but because he was on TV, of course. Firing Line, his public affairs program, aired from 1966 to 1996, a run comparable to Johnny Carson's, but with socialist academics and unknown politicians. There was always much to hate about Buckley. Often cited as the father of the conservative movement, or at least its prime theorist, Buckley's politics were often offensive, i.e., his advocacy of Joe McCarthy and his cold-war absolutism. Dyspeptic and defiantly Anglo-Saxon, prone to bug-eyed fits of mild outrage, Buckley was an awkward TV host - his intellectual condescension towards his guests, whether on the Left or the Right, was never less than transparent, and Buckley's frequent fits of OED show-offery always had my father scrambling for the dictionary.

I really miss him. Stanford University, which is the conservator for the complete Firing Line archives, has made a partial list of the shows available online, as well as teasingly short Real Time clips of a handful of random programs. But just scan that list of shows for a minute - can you imagine a talk show in 2006 tackling subjects like "Mobilizing The Poor?" "The Idea of The Great Ideas?" "Race and Conservatism?" It's great to watch Buckley give equal air-time to prime movers and professors alike - he reels off academic C.V.'s as if they were movie credits. Granted, this was public TV, but not even public TV has the courage of its pledge-drive convictions anymore - if you think of Tavis Smiley or Charlie Rose as the heirs to the Firling Line mantle, well, them's fighting words. Firing Line reminds us of a time when television, albeit ghetto-ized TV for people with PBS tote bags, could sustain a serious public-affairs show that had nothing to do with entertainment news. Do take a look at these clips, and you, too, will feel the elegiac sting of a good time gone forever.

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