In the Sunday afternoons of my adolescence, when there was no football to watch or much else to see on TV, our household viewing typically turned to “Firing Line,” the public television talk show hosted by conservative commentator William F. Buckley.
My grandfather, who lived with us and was fond of dozing in his recliner on weekends, found “Firing Line” a perfect companion for his naps. There would, for an hour at least, be no raised voices coming from the console to break his sleep.
Buckley, then a legendary icon of the right wing, invited liberals on his show and politely sparred with them for 60 minutes, the whole affair free of shouting and acrimony.
A show that’s good to sleep by isn’t exactly what TV executives have in mind when they’re searching for ratings gold. “Firing Line” went off the air in 1999, and Buckley died in 2008. It sometimes seems that civil discourse died with him.
Buckley had at least one public lapse of manners in 1968, when he debated Gore Vidal about the Vietnam War on ABC. Vidal goaded Buckley by calling him an ugly name, and Buckley, understandably angered, shot back with an equally venomous slur of Vidal. Their brief exchange, greeted as a cultural earthquake back then, would hardly get noticed now.
On any given day at any given moment, Americans can see tweets or televised arguments that would make the Buckley-Vidal dustup look like a lovefest.
All of this came to mind over the holidays as I read “A Torch Kept Lit,” a newly published collection of Buckley’s writings about friends and public figures who died during his years as a magazine and newspaper columnist. Although they weren’t formally delivered at funerals, the essays in “A Torch Kept Lit” are essentially eulogies, and Buckley was a master of the form.
Some of the most moving pieces in the book are Buckley’s tributes to departed friends who also happened to be liberals. Politically, Buckley and economist John Kenneth Galbraith were miles apart.
Buckley was an ardent champion of the free market, and Galbraith spent his career critiquing the limits of the market as an agent of prosperity.
Their argument continued until Galbraith’s death in 2006, but it apparently never occurred to Buckley to regard Galbraith, an intellectual rival, as his enemy.
“He was a truly generous friend … and that is why there are among his friends those who weep that he is now gone,” Buckley wrote.
Buckley had equal affection for his television producer, Warren Steibel, a liberal who nevertheless helped make “Firing Line” an award-winning program.
“A Torch Kept Lit” was a joy to read and a peek into bright lives long gone now. What also seems distant is a world in which conservatives and liberals learned to respect and even love each other.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.