by The Other Katherine Harris
The Other Katherine Harris’s blog
Feb. 27, 2008
“A mind,” as the saying goes, “is a terrible thing to waste.” Damn shame about Bill Buckley’s. Imagine the good he might have done, given worthier aims than enlarging fortunes like his family’s, reviving social restrictions that even his Catholic church considered shopworn by the 1960s and generally stopping the march of history dead in its tracks.
Even at 16, my age when The Firing Line debuted in 1966, I knew his politics were repugnant. Besides defending the increasingly bloody American misadventure in Vietnam and, of course, anything big business and theocrats wanted, he was a foe of the civil rights movement and similarly held that students were too uppity. By then, the world had seen only a few campus sit-ins and minor disruptions, but even this was too much for Buckley, who thought the root of the problem was simply lack of adult discipline. On one of his earliest shows, the actor and folk singer Theodore Bikel countered, “Do you really think we live in… an age where… a parent can obstinately cling to the belief that the values of today are not substantially different from the values of yesterday?” “But the parents are right,” Buckley retorted, to which Bikel laughed, “I knew that you would say that.”
There was seldom a scrap of doubt about what he’d say on any subject. The fun part was how cleverly he often said it. In both the elegance of his demeanor and his choice of words – selected with evident gusto from one of the best-furnished toyboxes around – he’d have been at home in a Noel Coward play, with only a few famous lapses (as when he threatened to punch Gore Vidal for calling him a crypto-fascist).
I’d love to know what Vidal is thinking today, having now outlived the last of his three sparring partners, the others being Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. It was a delight to observe their verbal pummelings – all well within bounds of civility, compared to today’s lying, strident body-slams.
Of course the Fairness Doctrine still applied in those days. Nobody got away with outright falsehood, besides which television wasn’t yet a bastion of anti-intellectualism. It actually brought us live theatre throughout my childhood; Burton played Hamlet in our living rooms and the hosts of talk shows were almost uniformly erudite, the likes of Steve Allen and Dick Cavett.
Buckley set out to match or exceed their class, at a time when conservatism had no such spokesman and, in seeking to legitimize the Robber Barons’ perspective, he presented his opposing views gracefully alongside those of people whom we honestly wanted to watch (John Kenneth Galbraith, David Susskind, Dick Gregory, Hugh Hefner, David Merrick, Dore Schary, Pierre Salinger, Daniel Moynihan, anti-Vietnam activist David Dellinger, James Hoffa, the then-young Senator Al Gore and even Black Panther Huey Newton and counterculture stars Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg). Have a look at some of these program summaries. Only occasionally was his guest a fellow-Republican, until the later years, so this was a brilliant means of worming into wider consciousness, without seeming to be a public menace.
Among those who’ve done our country such vast damage, Buckley was certainly one of the most influential, but not one of the absolute worst. The New Republic was higher-toned before his 1990 retirement, and he had sense enough to favor decriminalizing drugs and to admit failure in Iraq and want us out in 2006.
If we get do-overs, I hope next time he’ll be just as smart and amusing, but on the people’s side.