All quiet on the Firing Line
William F. Buckley Jr. flicks his tongue and skewers his guests
one last time
By Andrew Ferguson/New York City
December 20, 1999
Web posted at: 1:19 p.m. EST (1819 GMT)
On a bleak afternoon last week, in a dim little TV studio in
lower Manhattan, Firing Line finally ran out of ammunition.
Hosted for 33 years by the conservative intellectual William F.
Buckley Jr., the show taped its final installment, which will air
on PBS stations the week of Dec. 26. Blue and white balloons had
been set out to leaven the gloom, as had a panel of younger
pundits, including Michael Kinsley and William Kristol. Their
conversation was unhurried and intelligent, as it always is on
Firing Line. Watching it all, you couldn't help thinking that
something more than a TV show was passing away.
Print journalists who appear frequently on TV have a phrase they
use after they say something silly or make a factual error. "It's
just TV," they shrug, and you can understand the attitude. The
conventions of the TV talk show, circa 1999, inflate the trivial
and trivialize the important. Watching Hardball's Chris Matthews
bark at his guests about tax plans and sex scandals, you wonder
why his guests don't cover themselves with dentist's smocks to
fend off the flying spittle. Kinsley recalls that as co-host of
Crossfire, the CNN shoutfest, he once disagreed with a guest in
too civil a tone. "No, no!" the producer shouted into his
earpiece. "Get mad! Get mad!"
Until last week Firing Line was there to remind us that TV
didn't have to be that way. The show was spawned in the earnest
mid-'60s, before popular culture swallowed up the middlebrow and
"educational TV" became a comical oxymoron. During last week's
taping, Buckley told his guests about David Susskind, the talk
pioneer from the 1950s who was host of a show called Open End.
"Every night he'd go on the air with some guests at 9," Buckley
said, "and he'd keep going--an hour, two hours, three--until he
A few years ago, Buckley cut Firing Line to half an hour from its
original hour. But he still scorned the spinning graphics, the
thumping theme music, the rushed interruptions for commercial
breaks. There were no commercial breaks--just two or three chairs,
a couple of cameras and talk.
And of course there is Buckley himself, with his darting tongue
and aristocratic drawl. The final broadcast shows clips of
Johnny Carson and Robin Williams hilariously impersonating
Buckley. But neither pretender could put an interviewee off
balance like the Firing Line host, who at last week's taping
leaned in to one of his guests, the liberal New York City
politician Mark Green, and said, "You've been on the show close
to 100 times over the years. Tell me, Mark, have you learned
Buckley prized intellectual combat, but also the careful
ventilation of ideas. Last week he cited with pride the fact that
the philosopher Mortimer Adler used Firing Line to explicate his
elaborate proofs for the existence of God. Somehow, it's hard to
imagine Adler on the Jerry Springer Show.
In Firing Line's heyday, Hugh Hefner could discourse on the
Playboy "philosophy" and Groucho Marx on the nature of comedy.
From Jack Kerouac to Mary McCarthy, and every President from
Nixon through Bush, there are few figures of intellectual
significance who didn't submit to Buckley's leisurely sparring.
He might open a show, as he did with Norman Mailer in 1967, like
this: "I should like to begin by asking Mr. Mailer, who has been
sentenced to five days in jail for a march on the Pentagon and
is appealing on the grounds that he was sentenced because he is
famous, to disclose whether he believes that artists should be
immune from the harassments of the law." Geraldo couldn't even
parse that sentence.
Firing Line was conceived in the ambition that TV could elevate
its audience, and Buckley survives as a kind of monument to that
goal. He will continue to write books and his popular newspaper
column, in which he no doubt will stand against the coarser
currents of popular culture. When the Firing Line taping was
through last week, and after champagne had been served, Ted
Koppel interviewed Buckley for Nightline. At the end, Koppel
said, "Mr. Buckley, we have 10 seconds left. Could you sum up in
10 seconds?" Said Buckley simply: "No."
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Cover Date: December 27, 1999