Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line

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9780062430458: Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line

A unique and compelling portrait of William F. Buckley as the champion of conservative ideas in an age of liberal dominance, taking on the smartest adversaries he could find while singlehandedly reinventing the role of public intellectual in the network television era.

When Firing Line premiered on American television in 1966, just two years after Barry Goldwater’s devastating defeat, liberalism was ascendant. Though the left seemed to have decisively won the hearts and minds of the electorate, the show’s creator and host, William F. Buckley—relishing his role as a public contrarian—made the case for conservative ideas, believing that his side would ultimately win because its arguments were better. As the founder of the right’s flagship journal, National Review, Buckley spoke to likeminded readers. With Firing Line, he reached beyond conservative enclaves, engaging millions of Americans across the political spectrum.

Each week on Firing Line, Buckley and his guests—the cream of America’s intellectual class, such as Tom Wolfe, Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, Henry Kissinger, and Milton Friedman—debated the urgent issues of the day, bringing politics, culture, and economics into American living rooms as never before. Buckley himself was an exemplary host; he never appealed to emotion and prejudice; he engaged his guests with a unique and entertaining combination of principle, wit, fact, a truly fearsome vocabulary, and genuine affection for his adversaries.

Drawing on archival material, interviews, and transcripts, Open to Debate provides a richly detailed portrait of this widely respected ideological warrior, showing him in action as never before. Much more than just the story of a television show, Hendershot’s book provides a history of American public intellectual life from the 1960s through the 1980s—one of the most contentious eras in our history—and shows how Buckley led the way in drawing America to conservatism during those years.

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On his pioneering TV program Firing Line, William F. Buckley debated his opponents with insight, openness, and respect—a far cry from the shouting matches of today—and set the stage for the triumphant return and ultimate victory of the conservative movement.

When Firing Line premiered in 1966, just two years after Barry Goldwater’s devastating defeat, American liberalism was ascendant. Though the left seemed to have decisively won the hearts and minds of the electorate, the show’s creator and host, William F. Buckley—relishing his role as a public contrarian—made the case for conservative ideas, believing that his side would ultimately win because its arguments were better. As the founder of the right’s flagship journal, National Review, Buckley spoke to like-minded readers. With Firing Line, he reached beyond conservative enclaves, engaging millions of Americans across the political spectrum.

With his magazine, syndicated column, radio appearances, and television show, Buckley pioneered the role of the pundit in the modern media age. Yet unlike so many of today’s talking heads, he refused to pander to his audience’s basest prejudices or to hype hot-button cultural issues.

Each week on Firing Line, Buckley and his guests—the cream of America’s intellectual class, such as Tom Wolfe, Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, Henry Kissinger, and Milton Friedman—debated the urgent issues of the day, bringing politics, culture, and economics into American living rooms as never before. Buckley himself was an exemplary host: he never appealed to emotion and prejudice; he engaged his guests with a unique and entertaining combination of principle, wit, fact, and a truly fearsome vocabulary; and he displayed genuine affection for many of his adversaries. If Buckley were alive today, he would be appalled at the decline in insight, respectability, and cogency in conservative discourse—and in political discourse generally.

Drawing on archival material, interviews, and transcripts, Open to Debate provides a richly detailed portrait of this widely respected ideological warrior, showing him in action as never before. Telling much more than just the story of a television show, Heather Hendershot crafts a history of American political and intellectual life from the 1960s through the 1980s—one of the most contentious eras in our history—and shows how Buckley emerged as the vanguard voice of modern conservatism.

About the Author:

Heather Hendershot is professor of film and media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  She is the author of Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation before the V-Chip, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture, and What’s Fair on the Air? Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest.

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