(CNSNews.com) -- Conservatives gathered at the Hoover Institution’s Johnson Center in Washington, D.C. on Thursday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Firing Line, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Emmy-awarding winning television show, as part of the think tank’s Buckley Legacy Project.
Firing Line, which Buckley once called “a bare-knuckled intellectual brawl,” was the longest-running public affairs show in television history with a single host. Buckley’s rapier wit and extensive vocabulary were regularly on display during his verbal duels with guests ranging from Saul Alinsky to Margaret Thatcher.
The show, which aired 1,505 times between 1966 and 1999, was credited with making conservative ideas accessible to large numbers of Americans who would otherwise not have been exposed to them.
A panel of conservative leaders who knew Buckley discussed the impact of the show before clips were played of him interviewing a who’s-who list of politicians and celebrities, including Ronald Reagan, Muhammad Ali, Milton Friedman, Hugh Hefner, and Barry Goldwater.
“I fully expect I’ll be wrong about something someday,” Buckley said in one of his trademark quips.
But the hour-long show provided much more than a showcase for Buckley’s dazzling rhetorical skills.
"Viewers were able to discover what the guests were like under fire,” said Lee Edwards, author and distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who confessed that he was “terrified, absolutely terrified” the two times Buckley invited him to be a guest on the show.
Although Buckley later adopted a “Churchillian grace” of “in victory, magnanimity,” according to British journalist Alistair Cooke, he “remained poised to pierce the equanimity of his opponent with a pointed question or comment,” Edwards recalled.
“Firing Line was Bill Buckley at his best: witty and wise, fearless and outrageous, conservative and libertarian. It is in fact, I think, a political and cultural portrait of the last half of the 20th century, with WFB as the always engaged and engaging master of ceremonies.”
Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center (MRC) and Buckley’s nephew, compared Firing Line’s hour-long format to the minutes-long interviews with politicians and newsmakers that are the staple on news programs today.
“You don’t debate on television any more. You fight,” Bozell pointed out.
“When that happens, two things happen. One is that you no longer have a discussion, you no longer have a serious thought in the political conversation because you don't even develop just one single thought.
"Instead, those of us who go on television today--you know, the Apostles spoke in tongues. We speak in sound bites. And we come up with pithy fractions of a thought. And that’s all you have to do on television today is come up with a pithy fraction of a thought," Bozell said.
“And so I look at where we are today, and I compare that going back to Firing Line, and what Bill Buckley had done...and I ultimately ask myself a question: Given that downward trajectory, could Firing Line have survived?
“My theory is that it would be stronger than ever if it were on with Bill today for the simple reason that it would be an oasis of thoughtful discussion in a sea of inanity,” Bozell said.
Bozell added that Americans have much shorter attention spans after having been “dumbed down” since the heyday of Firing Line.
“You look at television today and you are the president of a network and your job is to deliver eyeballs. And it’s just this downward spiraling situation where you go to the lowest common denominator at all times to get the largest possible audience. That’s where we are right now. And I don’t know how much lower you can go,” Bozell said.
“Firing Line was really crucial in making conservatism a mass movement,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at National Review, the magazine Buckley founded in 1955.
But Firing Line also made Buckley into a cultural icon, Ponnuru pointed out.
”It was Firing Line that made him into what he eventually became. That is, no Firing Line, probably no Bill Buckley references in Woody Allen movies, no Robin Williams’ impressions of Buckley, and quite probably, many thousands of people would never have become conservatives or become self-conscious conservatives.
“But they watched that show, and they were introduced and exposed to arguments and, of course, Bill’s very attractive personality, and drawn into this burgeoning movement.”
MRC is the parent organization of CNSNews.com.