William Buckley: A Television Persona Passes

by Tom Watson
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William F. Buckley may be twisting painfully in the eternal hellfires right about now, condemned for rejecting civil rights in a cynical wager against his own views of liberty, but his passing does recall a type of conservative who would gladly make a public argument on the relative merits – and not try to merely shout the opposition down with bully talk and cheap sloganeering.

His death also removes another one of those classic 60s and 70s television personalities from the talk show set, a singular face and voice and style that those of us who can feel those years mourn the dearth of these days. From his half recline, one arm thrown back over a corner of the chair, a pen clutched in the other, Buckley unpacked slow-moving questions on Firing Line – big slow righty curves compared to today’s ‘roid-raged speedballers – and he inhabited a public world of curling cigarette smoke in black and white, talking world that included names like Mailer, and Vidal and Capote. Jim Wolcott captured that televised eminence perfectly:

Carrying his clipboard like a discus, Buckley slouched into the studio glare of the Jack Paar show or reposed on the set of David Susskind and uncoiled his cobra act, mesmerizing the audience and his antagonists with a battery of mannerisms, his eyes widening with a gleaming twinkle just before he went for the kill. He was a master of the tangential counterattack, to borrow a phrase from Manny Farber, not only removing the stuffing and mummy wrapping from modern conservatism but endowing it with a fizzy bonhomie that enabled him to entertain friendships with liberal foils such as John Kenneth Galbraith and others. Unlike a industrial-strength grievance collector such as Norman Podhoretz, Buckley didn’t scrounge for opportunities to cast former friends and allies as enemies and infidels in order to play the role of injured party; he believed in the social emollients of courtesy, banter, and prompt drink refills during the intermission pauses between political jousting matches. His interrogation technique on Firing Line was a marvel of making a guest feel at ease before knocking him off his pedestal, his elaborate foreplay so stylized that it became a comic staple for impersonators ranging from David Frye to SCTV’s Joe Flaherty, who didn’t miss a trick conjuring Buckley’s trademark deployment of fountain pen, flicking tongue, protruding rabbit teeth, sly grin, and reclining posture–his sitting in the interviewer’s chair at such a steep incline that he nearly dropped out of camera frame.

It is true that Buckley was a polite man (I once exchanged pleasantries about winter weather and subsidized rail travel with him while waiting out a long delay at the Stamford train station), and he must have recoiled at his so-called heirs on talk radio – the smearing, hateful Limbaughs and Hannities – and the inbred pep squad at The Corner and their giggles about smiley-faced liberal fascists. His humor, too, rose far about the Beavisonian tenor of the right’s great comics; asked what he’d do if he was actually elected after a quixotic run for New York City Mayor in 1965, he responded: “Request a recount.”

He was also, per the excellent obit by Douglas Martin in today’s Times, prolific:

The more than 4.5 million words of his 5,600 newspaper columns, titled “On the Right,” would fill 45 more medium-size books. His collected papers, which were donated to Yale, weigh seven tons.

That discussion, from the National Review to Firing Line to his many books and columns and appearance on endless talking head programs, was an open and spirited one that many of us with a little living experience miss in today’s landscape (this blog excepted, of course). Jane Hamsher has it, I think:

I hate to sound like a geezer but after having listened to a bunch of people born in the 70s and 80s lecture me about what an asshole William F. Buckley was, I want to say one thing.

There is a qualitative difference between Bill Buckley and the conservatives of today. I know he had shitty political opinions and the reason I do is because he told me so. Buckley openly embraced racist, McCarthyesque views that he not only acknowledged but defended. Which made it possible to have meaningful, substantive debate between the left and the right.

That isn’t possible with today’s conservative leading lights, the Straussians who philosophically believe it’s their obligation to determine what you should think and then tell you whatever they need to in order to get you to believe it.

So, respect on the left for the Oxford-clothed, button-downed lion on the right as he leaves the field. Well, Buckley’s view of civil liberties took an unfortunate political turn early in his career (he recanted them 30 years later), leaving a stain that will always ruin his perfect preppy suit. One conservative blogger’s paean to ole WFB elicited this pithy alternative biography from a commenter named angryclown:

Please. Buckley supported Joe McCarthy and opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Privileged upper-class twit spends a lifetime promoting the interests of same, dies. Yawn.

[Cross-posted from my inner lair].

Bonus footage – 1969, Buckley vs. Noam Chomsky on Firing Line – no programming like this any more:

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Comments

  • March 1, 2008

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Hooray, Jane Hamsher!

  • March 1, 2008

    I wasn’t aware of his past baggage, btu I strongly disliked hsi hoity-toity stance on education, for example. I Iwill have to come back here to watch the priceless video. Thanks for a great post. And video.

  • Steve Nesich
    March 2, 2008

    According to my friends, I did a great Buckley imitation back in my college days. I don’t think that any of us should forget Buckley’s strong backing of Joe McCarthy in the 50’s, his opposition to civil rights and voting rights legislation in the 60’s, using essentially the same tired excuse that some bigots used, and his elitist, ruling class attitude regarding roughly 97% of Americans. Dan, thanks for that YouTube link. I also agree that Chomsky handles Buckley here in the same way that Ali handled Chuck Wepner back in ’76.

  • March 2, 2008

    Steve: and thank you for the boxing metaphor; I wanted to use one but couldn’t think of the appropriate bout. It’s the case of the good boxer, the man who has the skill, who can just jab, jab, hook, jab, and then right-cross the other guy, the other guy who looks good and who has the flashy moves but who doesn’t have the heart and is finally gonna hit the canvas and stay on the canvas if he knows what’s good for him.