Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) Talks Death Penalty with William F. Buckley (1968)

Truman Capote didn’t study to become expert in capital crime and its punishment,” says William F. Buckley on the Firing Line broadcast of September 3, 1968, “but his five and one half year engagement of the slaughter of the Clutter family, which went into the writing of In Cold Blood, left him with highly settled impressions in the matter.” You can hear Buckley elicit and Capote concisely lay out the position to which these impressions brought him in the clip above. Though remembered for his own conservative views, Buckley seemed ever eager to invite onto his show, frequently and without hesitation, public figures who strongly disagreed with him. This sense of controversy generated a stream of classically compelling televisual moments over Firing Line‘s 33-year run, but for my money, all the direct conflicts have less to offer than the times a guest — or even the host — broke from standard ideological positions, as Capote does here.

Buckley opens by asking whether “systematic execution of killers over the preceding generation might have stayed the hand of the murderers of the Cutter family.” Capote replies that “capital punishment — which I’m opposed to, but for quite different reasons than are usually advanced — would in itself be a singularly effective deterrent, if it were, in fact, systematically applied. But because public sentiment is very much opposed to it and the courts have allowed this endless policy of appeal — to such a degree that a person can be eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen years under a sentence of capital punishment — it becomes, in effect, an extreme, unusual, and cruel punishment. If people really were sentenced to be executed and were within a reasonable period of time, the professional murderer knew the absolute, positive end of their actions would be their own death, I think it would certainly give them second thoughts.” This perhaps lends itself poorly to a sound bite, but Firing Line at its best never dealt in those.

Related content:

William F. Buckley Meets (Possibly Drunk) Jack Kerouac, Tries to Make Sense of Hippies, 1968

James Baldwin Bests William F. Buckley in 1965 Debate at Cambridge University

Allen Ginsberg Reads a Poem He Wrote on LSD to William F. Buckley

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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