Sunday, March 2, 2008
I don't believe I ever agreed with anything Bill Buckley had to say, but I was always amused and entertained by the way he said it. I started watching Firing Line when I was in my early twenties, almost always for the sake of hearing one of his many fascinating guests. Over the years, I became a fan of Buckley himself.
He was frankly partisan, aggressively intellectual, and just a little bit pompous -- qualities I recognized in myself, and wholeheartedly enjoyed. I loved the way obscure, multisyllabic words just rolled off his tongue, and the way his face lit up a little bit when he said something especially clever.
A Buckley interview was always a conversation, rather than a grim exchange of talking points. Even when an exchange became clearly competitive, his guests always were encouraged to fully express their ideas; and Buckley's follow-up questions showed that they always had his complete attention. If he pushed a pin into an inflated ego, it always was with grace and good humor.
When Buckley hosted talented liberal thinkers like John Kenneth Galbraith or Noam Chomsky, a single show could become a mini-course in contemporary thinking -- not to mention a mini-course in good manners. Firing Line would have been an extremely bad fit for Fox News.
Civility and intelligence on interview shows are not entirely extinct -- Charlie Rose comes to mind -- but the environments that support them are threatened by the pollutants of noise, commercialism, and pandering to the basest instincts of the media audience. Bill Buckley will be missed.