William F. Buckley has died. His health failing from emphysema, the 82-year-old Buckley's body was discovered Wednesday morning by his cook. Buckley had more careers than Baskin-Robbins has flavors -- journalist, spy, novelist, lexicologist, mayoral candidate, and, most fundamentally, father of modern conservatism -- but he was also a major and underappreciated influence on television. Every time you gaze at Bill O'Reilly or Keith Olbermann or Glenn Beck barking as they circle some hapless guest, you're watching a mutant offspring of the original TV political talk show, Buckley's Firing Line.
It would go too far to say Buckley invented the genre; that title probably belongs to David Susskind, whose New York show Open End (so titled because it ended each night not at a scheduled time, but whenever Susskind ran out of things to say, which on some evenings seemed like never) frequently included spirited political debates, including most famously one in which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made him look like a ventriloquist's dummy.
But politics was a sideline on Open End, which debuted in 1958, and also included guests ranging from spiritualists to transvestites. Buckley's Firing Line, which began airing in 1966 on New York station WOR before moving to PBS five years later, was purely political. Buckley certainly was fascinated by popular culture -- everybody from Jack Kerouac to Mary McCarthy did Firing Line -- but because he evaluated in terms of ideas rather than celebrity, culture, too, took on a political cast on his show.
I doubt if Buckley would appreciate my tracing his television DNA to O'Reilly and the rest of cable's baying hounds; he was, no doubt, appalled by their high volume and low vulgarity. Firing Line was anything but a shouting match -- the tone was relentlessly civil. Not that Buckley wasn't a quick man with a needle. In one of his final broadcasts in 1999, Buckley turned to his frequent guest, liberal New York politician Mark Green, and arched those expressive eyebrows. "You've been on the show close to 100 times over the years,'' Buckley murmured. "Tell me, Mark, have you learned anything yet?"
For all that, Buckley's most immortal moment on television was one of rank incivility. In what was an imaginative and even rather daring move at the time, ABC had hired Buckley and lefty novelist Gore Vidal to provide on the network's coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The convention turned violent (both figuratively, as the Democratic party tore itself into shreds, and literally, as cops and anti-war protesters battered one another in the streets outside) and Buckley and Vidal followed suite. In their most famous exchange, Vidal sneered that Buckley was a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley roared back: "Listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face!'' Now that sounds like cable.