Bill Buckley’s Lesson for Today’s Conservatives

Neal B. Freeman, Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2016.


What did “Firing Line” add to the culture of its day? It became, first, a national megaphone for conservative values. It wasn’t one of dozens of right-leaning talk shows. It was one of one.

Second, it became a foundation stone for the emerging political movement of which Bill Buckley was the principal architect. It was a laboratory where fresh conservative ideas were proposed, rejected, battle-tested, reformulated and—for those that survived—polished for general circulation. Third, and not at all incidentally, it became a promotional vehicle of lifesaving value to National Review.

No history of “Firing Line,” however abbreviated, would be complete without remarking on the sheer theatricality of that performance.

There was, first, the power of language. Bill deployed his overstuffed vocabulary to instruct and illuminate, but almost as often to stun or intimidate. When he would ask a guest, for instance, if his position was “mere velleity” or, for another instance, if the guest’s position approached statistical reality “asymptotically,” the guest’s eyes would widen—maybe appearing on “Firing Line” had been a bad career choice. (I’d tell you what those words mean, but Bill would have preferred that you look them up.)

Wall Street Journal