August 9, 2000

August 9, 2000 | Commentary on Political Thought

William F. Buckley Jr.: An Appreciation

A media giant is leaving the national stage - and few have noticed.

Dan Rather? Ted Turner? Rupert Murdoch? Try William F. Buckley Jr., author, columnist, magazine founder, host of one of television's longest-running talk shows - and a man whose impact on the media is almost as large as his celebrated vocabulary.

Buckley was first in many areas and inspired a generation - my generation - to follow in his footsteps. Thanks to Buckley, who in 1955, when he introduced National Review, showed America there was a market for thoughtful conservative ideas, we now have a lively array of policy journals, from The American Spectator and The Weekly Standard to National Interest, Public Interest, and our own Policy Review.

Similarly, Buckley's TV show "Firing Line" showed there was a place on television for lively political talk, a lesson well understood today by Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly and Tony Snow, and MSNBC's Chris Matthews. In short, Buckley played hardball when Matthews was still playing kickball.

But Buckley, 74, is slowly retiring from public view. He still writes a weekly column, but he announced earlier this year that he would not give any more public speeches. Before that, he ended his 1,429-episode run of "Firing Line," the longest-running television show with the same host. And almost a decade ago, Buckley stepped down as editor-in-chief of National Review to become "editor-at-large."

It's hard to overstate the importance of National Review, which offered respectable conservative opinion against communism, big government and liberal culture at a time when the most visible conservatives were such tragic figures as Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Robert Welch of the John Birch Society. Conservative intellectuals such as L. Brent Bozell, Russell Kirk and James Burnham all had bylines in National Review's first issue. Other conservative greats would follow, including Whittaker Chambers and George Will.

Even the mainstream media recognize Buckley's impact, despite the occasional darts he tosses at such sacrosanct institutions as The New York Times. It is with good reason that Buckley is listed among America's most influential journalists at The Freedom Forum's Newseum in Arlington, Va., sharing space with leftist I.F. "Izzy" Stone and Tom Wolfe, a pioneer of the New Journalism during the 1960s.

But Buckley's impact goes beyond the narrow confines of journalism. National Review helped inspire thousands of conservatives to organize themselves into a powerful political movement. Liberal Buckley biographer John Judis said in an interview that National Review's role "was to create, almost out of nothing, the conservative movement."

The movement was also aided by Buckley's "Firing Line," which debuted in 1966. It pitted Buckley and guests in intellectual judo over important issues, but without becoming the verbal bar fights that characterize many such shows today. It also paved the way for talk shows such as CNN's "Crossfire" and MSNBC's "Hardball" by tackling hard issues with guests as diverse as Margaret Thatcher, Groucho Marx and Timothy Leary.

Like National Review, "Firing Line" had a style and class all its own. Unlike many talk show hosts today, Buckley rarely raised his voice. Nor did he bark shorthand at them ("Issue No. 1!"). Instead, Buckley had serious, occasionally heated, but civil discussions on topics ranging from Vietnam to abortion to American teen-agers to LSD. His pointed grilling scared away more than a few politicians. Asked why Attorney General Robert Kennedy rejected several invitations to be on "Firing Line," Buckley quipped: "Why does baloney reject the grinder?"

Perhaps the greatest testament to Buckley's impact on the media was his ability to succeed without yielding to trends. Let's face it: Few writers can use words like "punctilio" and "peroration" in the modern American newspaper and get away with it. And fewer television hosts can slouch as much as Buckley did on his show. "People write letters saying 'Why doesn't he sit up?' My point with everyone is that they ought to be what they are," former "Firing Line" producer Warren Steibel said in an interview.

Buckley made his mark because he was himself, something rare in a media world run by focus groups and target demos. His impact continues, however. National Review still sets the standard for opinion journals, liberal or conservative. And "Firing Line" is still the model for what an intelligent public affairs show ought to be. Now all we need is a host who can pronounce words such as "encephalophonic" and "antonomasia" and actually know what they mean.

Note: Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

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