A media giant is leaving the national stage - and few have
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
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
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
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
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
Note: Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation
(www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research
Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service.
William F. Buckley Jr.: An Appreciation
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
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