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Pat MurphyWhen New York City’s WOR-TV broadcast the first episode of Firing Line on April 30, 1966, it’s unlikely anyone thought it would become American television’s longest-running public affairs show with a single host. But that’s what happened. By the time it wrapped up in 1999, Firing Line had clocked 1,504 episodes, all with William F. Buckley Jr. as host.

Firing Line’s best years were the early ones and it’s fair to say that those interested in lively public affairs discussion found it riveting television. To quote San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Terrence O’Flaherty on Buckley: “He’s a real honest-to-god personality, one of the few live personalities on a dead medium; he’s the best thing on the air.”

And although Buckley was a full-blooded conservative, Firing Line’s audience included many liberals. Indeed, when technical issues caused San Francisco’s KQED to miss a week, the station was deluged with complaints – 180 calls in the first hour alone.

So what attracted them?

Part of it was the sheer novelty of a hyper-articulate conservative strutting his stuff – which was something you didn’t see very often on 1960s television – and another was the intellectual quality of the discussion. But perhaps the most enticing element was the irresistible lure of combat.

To Neal Freeman, Firing Line’s original director, the show’s model was the boxing ring as exemplified by the Friday night fights that were once popular television fare. Buckley biographer John Judis has Freeman putting it this way: “I was thinking that Firing Line ought to be a challenge to the liberal establishment to see if their champions could go three rounds with the boy wonder. It was the fight of the week.”

And looking at the guest list for Firing Line’s early years indicates no shortage of candidates for intellectual combat. There was Rules for Radicals author Saul Alinsky; Noam Chomsky, trenchant critic of all things American; Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver; liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith; radical lawyer William Kunstler; LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary; and so forth.

Mind you, not everyone was up for the occasion. Martin Luther King, for instance, turned down the opportunity, as did Bobby Kennedy. Asked about Kennedy’s refusal, Buckley flashed his verbal stiletto with the retort, “Why does baloney reject the grinder?”

If Buckley didn’t always win these encounters, he was a sufficiently formidable debater as to invariably give a good account of himself. Fast on his feet both intellectually and rhetorically, he had a facility for the kind of verbal thrust that even opponents ruefully admired.

A January 1967 piece in The Wall Street Journal neatly captured this dilemma. Referring to his capacity for “spearing a foe,” the article described it as holding the “same fascination as the sight of a cat stalking a bird. If you sympathize with the bird, you can still find it possible to admire the grace and ferocity of its pursuer – and certainly the arch-conservative Mr. Buckley has a growing following among liberals who detest his views but frankly admire his panache.”

Buckley, of course, wasn’t unknown before Firing Line. As a prolific author, columnist, magazine editor, lecturer and all-round polemicist, he was already a public figure of moderate repute. Firing Line, though, helped turn him into a celebrity intellectual.

With his arched eyebrows, darting tongue, polysyllabic vocabulary and languid voice, Buckley was catnip to impressionists and stand-up comics like David Frye and Robin Williams. And in the inevitable way of celebrity, this became the kind of compounding exercise where lots of people knew who he was without having anything but the vaguest idea, if even that, of his substantive work.

But despite his undoubted intellect and sparkling style, Buckley eventually became stale.

Perhaps it was a matter of spreading himself too thin. In addition to his column, magazine and television work, he took to writing novels in the mid-1970s, producing no fewer than 19 between 1976 and 2007.

Or maybe it was simply a question of running out of gas and losing his edge.

In any event, by the time he died at age 82 in 2008, he’d become venerable rather than relevant.

Still, of all the American public intellectuals in the 20th century’s second-half, few matched Buckley’s influence and none surpassed it. That’s a reasonable epitaph by anyone’s standards.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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