Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line by Heather Hendershot
I remember watching Firing Line years back. I always remember Michael Kinsley standing at a platform far away, presenting his opening challenge to WFB. I also recall students sitting on the floor in front of the speakers. It wasn't a polished show, but it was usually educational.
In OPEN TO DEBATE Heather Hendershot presents a fascinating look at the long history of Firing Line. Two surprising tidbits: (1) The show was not even Buckley's idea; and (2) the show was never intended to run so long: "Firing Line was initially imagined as a thirteen-episode series, but ultimately ran for almost 1,500 episodes." Furthermore, the show was never profitable.
Firing Line was definitely not entertaining in the usual sense. It was likewise not sophisticated technically. (Calling it a "show" doesn't seem to fit.) "Firing Line was, to say the least, not a good-looking show." The author humorously sums up the guests: "Many of the guests were men in suits, their legs crossed, trousers riding up above black socks revealing an inch or two of pale white skin." One viewer sent word that the show must have been “filmed through a badly-worn pair of cheap nylons."
For many years, Firing Line was a way for liberals and conservatives to test their ideas against each other, in a civil fashion: "Buckley’s program was more often a space for liberalism to meet conservatism, for the left wing to meet the right wing."
Firing Line was a civil meeting of minds. In a 1983 show, speaking to the great philosopher Mortimer Adler, Adler asked WFB, “Don’t you think that the whole purpose of conversation is the meeting of minds?” Buckley's answer: “Either that, or the crystallization of differences.” A viewer--whether liberal or conservative, could actually learn a lot about a different point of view, and "become a better liberal or a better conservative from watching the show. There is simply no equivalent on TV today."
The author laments (as do I) the loss of serious, civil debate. “The McLaughlin Group was really the death knell for Firing Line.” (For readers unacquainted with that show, it was a fast-moving battle of wits, with left and right sometimes shouting at each other. Ironically, the show ended just last month, after the death of the moderator, John McLaughlin.)
All in all, I found OPEN TO DEBATE to be a fair, well-researched assessment of the long-running show. Heather sums up the value of Firing Line well: "If I have learned anything as a liberal watching hundreds of hours of Firing Line, it is the value of testing political ideas against each other, hashing them out, and finding a way to disagree (usually, if not always) without animosity."
Advance Review Copy courtesy of Edelweiss.