William F. Buckley: Mandarin of Right-Wing TV

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One night in early 1962, William F. Buckley was Jack Paar's guest on The Tonight Show. At 36, Buckley had been an infant phenom, writing the book God and Man at Yale (he was pro-God, anti-Yale) and an indulgent biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy. But as a TV personality, he was brand, startling new. Buckley pontificated for perhaps a dozen minutes, and when he left, Paar and his accomplice, Hugh Downs, were nearly apopletic — for Buckley, with his daredevil conservative views, had broken the unspoken rule of calm, liberalesque conversation. The following night, as it happened, the guest was Gore Vidal, as assertive and bombastic on the liberal side as Buckley had been on the Tory. When Vidal departed, Downs formed a circle with his fingers and said that the far left and the far right tended to meet; they were indistinguishable in their radicalism.

Few viewers realized that those two evenings 46 years ago would birth a durable TV genre: the partisan political harangue as infotainment. The Left, in Vidal's image, never took hold, but Buckley soon set up shop at PBS, of all places, hosting the primordial political chat show Firing Line. From that, and from Buckley's blithe, castrating wit, a horde of right-wing radio spielers and Fox News ideologues, not to mention the Manichean shouters on The McLaughlin Report and many a Sunday panel show.

Buckley must have known he cut an eccentric figure on TV, as peculiar as Truman Capote or Tiny Tim. He certainly knew how to make the most of it. Whatever people thought of him, they watched him, first with Paar or David Suskind, then on the long-running Firing Line. First he was the token conservative, proud but lonely; then other joined his ranks and he became their paterfamilias.

Here was the Buckley image: a Mandarin figure, chin upraised, tongue occasionally darting out, ready to catch any unwary fly in the vicinity. Sometimes his eyes goggled out, a la Harpo Marx; at other times he closed his eyes and folded his hands, as if in supplication to the god of synonyms ("Please, Roget, instantly grant me a word as eloquent as it is obscure"). His words cascaded out, in periodic sentences with numerous subordinate clauses. They were given a kind of sprung rhythm by his slight, impatient stammer, and delivered in a turn-of-the-century Shakespearean actor's mid-Atlantic accent, his voice so preposterously mellifluous that it seemed that, even as he was speaking, he had some brandy in the back of his mouth that he needed to evaluate before swallowing it.

Coming of out of the bland '50s, when President Ike's demeanor was both genial and baffled, and when the Democrats owned so much of the ideological real estate that they were usually ready to concede minor points, Buckley was the rhetorician as revolutionary. His manner suggested that he was 100% right — right as in correct — and all who opposed him were fools or brigands. It's an old debater's trick, and he was the master debater. Like another '60s icon, Vince Lombardi, he believed that winning was the only thing. Your rival is not to be charmed so much as crushed.

For a while, the tactic didn't win Buckley many adherents. But it worked in the long run. As the conservative movement took hold, thanks in large part to his biweekly magazine National Review, conservatives began to speak out more forcefully, belligerently, confidently. By the '80s they had most of the smarties, while liberals still wallowed in position-paper platitudes. What had the right learned from Buckley? The importance of showmanship.

None, though, had Buckley's strangely seductive, amusingly upper-class persona. In tone and aplomb, he was Leslie Howard to Rush Limbaugh's Larry the Cable Guy, a caviar-and-truffles type to Sean Hannity's Lunchpail Joe. In that sense, Buckley was a throwback even before the 1960s, to a breed of would-be royalists stranded in the tight-lipped New World. The anglophilia of this well-off son of Irish immigrants made him an anachronistic figure of fun when he ran for Mayor of New York City — the voters preferred earthy sorts like Ed Koch to Buckley's Edward VIII airs — and a pleasant anachronism in his later career as conservative elder statesman, his orotundity drowned out by the noise of the Limbaughs.

But that only proved Buckley's importance as a political and cultural innovator. His ear-catching right-wing eloquence would never have gone out of style if he hadn't been successful in creating it.