375+ Episodes of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line Now Online: Features Talks with Chomsky, Borges, Kerouac, Ginsberg & More

On most issues, I’m clear about where I stand and why, and I used to find it enlight­en­ing to debate informed peo­ple who felt strong­ly about oppos­ing posi­tions. Some­times we would get each oth­er to budge a lit­tle bit, or—at the very least—sharpen the artic­u­la­tion of our views. These days, I often find myself in echo cham­bers, preach­ing to choirs, and oth­er clichés about epis­temic clo­sure. It’s a sit­u­a­tion that alarms me, and yet I find even more alarm­ing the lev­els of cyn­i­cism, invec­tive, bad faith, threats, and mis­in­for­ma­tion that per­vade so much par­ti­san debate.

I know I’m not alone in this lament. What we’ve lost—among oth­er human­ist virtues—is what philoso­phers and rhetori­cians call the “prin­ci­ple of char­i­ty,” gen­er­al­ly defined as mak­ing the clear­est, most intel­lec­tu­al­ly hon­est inter­pre­ta­tion we can of an opponent’s views and argu­ing against them on those mer­its. The prin­ci­ple of char­i­ty allows us to have civ­il dis­agree­ments with peo­ple whose ethics we may dis­like, and it there­by fur­thers dis­cus­sion rather than sti­fles it.

We may all have our own sto­ry about who is to blame for the break­down of the dis­course, but before we start yelling at each oth­er all over again, we could per­haps take some time to learn from exam­ples of polit­i­cal debate done well. One long-run­ning exam­ple involves a fig­ure whose views I’ve usu­al­ly found abhor­rent (and some of which he him­self lat­er called “rep­re­hen­si­ble”), but whose abil­i­ty to defend them in char­i­ta­ble spar­ring match­es with peo­ple from every pos­si­ble place on the spec­trum (or horse­shoe), I’ve found very com­pelling.

I write here of William F. Buck­ley, the well-heeled, Ivy League-edu­cat­ed (many have said elit­ist) founder of the Nation­al Review. What­ev­er per­son­al strengths or flaws we wish to ascribe to Buck­ley, we should agree on a few facts: Dur­ing his tenure as the host of Fir­ing Line—an often oppo­si­tion­al inter­view pro­gram in which Buck­ley chat­ted up con­ser­v­a­tive fel­low trav­el­ers and sparred with left­ist intel­lec­tu­als, artists, and activists—we see over and over again that he made an effort to actu­al­ly read his oppo­nents’ views first­hand; to clar­i­fy his under­stand­ing of them; and to base his dis­agree­ment on the the argu­ments rather than the real or imag­ined moti­va­tions of the mes­sen­ger.

Over 375 episodes of Fir­ing Line have been made avail­able on YouTube by the Hoover Insti­tu­tion at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. You can find com­plete episodes on Hoover’s YouTube chan­nel here (there are prob­a­bly more to come), and see their web site for an archive of full pro­grams and tran­scripts avail­able online.

Buck­ley did­n’t always engage in rea­soned debate: he issued many ugly per­son­al and racial attacks in print. He threat­ened to punch both Gore Vidal and Noam Chom­sky (jok­ing­ly, per­haps). But Fir­ing Line wasn’t only about its host: its suc­cess depend­ed also on the for­mat, the audi­ence, and the qual­i­ty of the dis­cus­sion and the guests. Take the few exam­ples here. At the top of the post, Buck­ley dis­cuss­es the Viet­nam War with Chom­sky. The lat­ter may be inca­pable of rais­ing his voice, but notice also Buckley’s cool exte­ri­or. While his gen­teel man­ner­isms rubbed many the wrong way, whether or not we like his demeanor, he con­sis­tent­ly employs meth­ods of clar­i­fi­ca­tion and argu­men­ta­tion rather than per­son­al attack (stray threats of punch­ing aside).

Nowhere in evi­dence is the cur­rent style of scream­ing over guests with whom the host dis­agrees. We find  sim­i­lar recep­tive­ness in Buck­ley’s inter­view with Allen Gins­berg, and even with Black Pan­ther Eldridge Cleaver, whom Buck­ley obvi­ous finds dis­taste­ful, and whose vio­lent rhetoric and vio­lent past may war­rant the reac­tion in many peo­ple’s esti­ma­tion. Nev­er­the­less, even in this extreme case, we see how the dis­cus­sion tracks along in such a way that view­ers actu­al­ly learn some­thing about the views on offer. Some may be unable to coun­te­nance either par­tic­i­pan­t’s ideas, and yet may come still away from the exchange exam­in­ing the basis of their own posi­tion.

Buck­ley didn’t only debate pol­i­tics. As in his inter­view with Gins­berg, many of his foils were lit­er­ary fig­ures, and many of them pri­mar­i­ly dis­cussed writ­ing. Fir­ing Line brought us great tele­vi­sion like the dis­cus­sions fur­ther up with Jorge Luis Borges, with Eudo­ra Wel­ty and Walk­er Per­cy above, and, below, with Nor­man Mail­er. The show ran from 1966 to 1999 and owed much of its pres­tige to the two pub­lic tele­vi­sion stations—from New Jer­sey and South Car­oli­na, respectively—who host­ed it and allowed for its rar­i­fied audi­ence.

Though it may not have been wide­ly viewed, Fir­ing Line’s influ­ence res­onat­ed wide­ly in its impact on oth­er cul­tur­al fig­ures and venues. Grant­ed, we see Buck­ley’s bias­es on dis­play. Make what you will of the fact that—although the peri­od of the show’s air­ing saw at least two waves of feminism—Buckley rarely inter­viewed women unless they already agreed with him. On the whole, how­ev­er, through­out the show’s 33-year run its host lis­tened to, engaged hon­est­ly with, and attempt­ed to under­stand oth­er points of view.

h/t Emer­son

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

William F. Buck­ley Flogged Him­self to Get Through Atlas Shrugged

William F. Buck­ley v. Gore Vidal – 1968

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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