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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

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 got bored."

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 anything yet?"

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."


Cover Date: December 27, 1999

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