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Open to Debate
Cover of Open to Debate
Open to Debate
How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line
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A unique and compelling portrait of William F. Buckley as the champion of conservative ideas in an age of liberal dominance, taking on the smartest adversaries he could find while singlehandedly reinventing the role of public intellectual in the network television era.

When Firing Line premiered on American television in 1966, just two years after Barry Goldwater's devastating defeat, liberalism was ascendant. Though the left seemed to have decisively won the hearts and minds of the electorate, the show's creator and host, William F. Buckley—relishing his role as a public contrarian—made the case for conservative ideas, believing that his side would ultimately win because its arguments were better. As the founder of the right's flagship journal, National Review, Buckley spoke to likeminded readers. With Firing Line, he reached beyond conservative enclaves, engaging millions of Americans across the political spectrum.

Each week on Firing Line, Buckley and his guests—the cream of America's intellectual class, such as Tom Wolfe, Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, Henry Kissinger, and Milton Friedman—debated the urgent issues of the day, bringing politics, culture, and economics into American living rooms as never before. Buckley himself was an exemplary host; he never appealed to emotion and prejudice; he engaged his guests with a unique and entertaining combination of principle, wit, fact, a truly fearsome vocabulary, and genuine affection for his adversaries.

Drawing on archival material, interviews, and transcripts, Open to Debate provides a richly detailed portrait of this widely respected ideological warrior, showing him in action as never before. Much more than just the story of a television show, Hendershot's book provides a history of American public intellectual life from the 1960s through the 1980s—one of the most contentious eras in our history—and shows how Buckley led the way in drawing America to conservatism during those years.

A unique and compelling portrait of William F. Buckley as the champion of conservative ideas in an age of liberal dominance, taking on the smartest adversaries he could find while singlehandedly reinventing the role of public intellectual in the network television era.

When Firing Line premiered on American television in 1966, just two years after Barry Goldwater's devastating defeat, liberalism was ascendant. Though the left seemed to have decisively won the hearts and minds of the electorate, the show's creator and host, William F. Buckley—relishing his role as a public contrarian—made the case for conservative ideas, believing that his side would ultimately win because its arguments were better. As the founder of the right's flagship journal, National Review, Buckley spoke to likeminded readers. With Firing Line, he reached beyond conservative enclaves, engaging millions of Americans across the political spectrum.

Each week on Firing Line, Buckley and his guests—the cream of America's intellectual class, such as Tom Wolfe, Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, Henry Kissinger, and Milton Friedman—debated the urgent issues of the day, bringing politics, culture, and economics into American living rooms as never before. Buckley himself was an exemplary host; he never appealed to emotion and prejudice; he engaged his guests with a unique and entertaining combination of principle, wit, fact, a truly fearsome vocabulary, and genuine affection for his adversaries.

Drawing on archival material, interviews, and transcripts, Open to Debate provides a richly detailed portrait of this widely respected ideological warrior, showing him in action as never before. Much more than just the story of a television show, Hendershot's book provides a history of American public intellectual life from the 1960s through the 1980s—one of the most contentious eras in our history—and shows how Buckley led the way in drawing America to conservatism during those years.

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About the Author-
  • Heather Hendershot is professor of film and media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is the author of Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation before the V-Chip, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture, and What's Fair on the Air? Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 4, 2016
    Hendershot (What’s Fair on the Air?), an MIT film and media professor, tells the story of Firing Line, William F. Buckley’s legendary television show, which ran from 1966 to 1999. In her view, Buckley was the “major conservative public intellectual” of post-WWII America, and Firing Line is “a model for what smart political TV once was,” contrasting with today’s on-air incivility. After starting small in New York City, Firing Line became must-see public television for millions nationwide in the 1970s. Stylish and eloquent, Buckley offered smart, telegenic points of view on themes such as communism, the Black Power movement, and feminism, all of which he strongly contested. A parade of public figures came to talk and debate. Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan joined him, as did Barry Goldwater, Margaret Thatcher, John Kenneth Galbraith, Betty Friedan, Eldridge Cleaver, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, to name only a few. Long before cable splintered television audiences, helping to bring Firing Line to an end, Buckley feared televised political theater and its impact on quality programming. Using interviews and transcripts, Hendershot does more than tell the history of a uniquely influential show and personality; her thorough, compelling, and very readable book provides a three-decade journey through the center of the nation’s intellectual life.

  • Kirkus

    A generous description and analysis of Firing Line, the weekly TV show hosted for three decades by conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr.Early on, Hendershot (Film and Media/MIT; What's Fair on the Air?: Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest, 2011, etc.) identifies herself as a liberal, but her work is suffused with a fair and balanced approach to the show that eventually found its home on PBS, where it ran for most of its 33 years (1966-1999). The author's research is formidable: interviews, major reliance on National Review (the magazine Buckley founded in 1955), and a comprehensive familiarity with the guests and topics on the show, a familiarity clearly acquired by many hours at the video monitor and many hours of reading transcripts. Hendershot's approach is generally topical and thematic rather than mercilessly chronological. She teaches us about some of the key issues Buckley presented and debated on the program, including Vietnam War crimes, anti-communism, Ronald Reagan's brand of conservatism, Black Power, and the women's movement, among others. Continually, Hendershot reveals Buckley's humor, his enormous vocabulary, his generosity with guests (many of whom he genially eviscerated), and his patrician deference and insistence on decorum. She sometimes becomes a sort of ex post facto judge of the debates, declaring winners and losers. She also shows us the nuts and bolts of the program, especially the determined plainness, even severity, of its simple set and visual effects, virtually unchanged from the show's inception. Periodically--and especially toward the end--Hendershot attacks the impoverished situation of political debate on TV today, and she notes with sadness the return of conspiratorial thinking, which Buckley had worked hard to shove into the shadows. A thoroughly researched work replete with intelligence, admiration, balanced criticism, and even a bit of nostalgia. COPYRIGHT(1) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    September 15, 2016

    After Barry Goldwater's defeat in the 1964 presidential election, common wisdom held that conservatism was dead and only the preserve of John Birch Society members, conspiracy theorists, and other fringe elements. William F. Buckley (1925-2008), founder of the conservative National Review magazine, set out to make conservatism a respectable alternative to the dominant liberalism. In 1966, Buckley began hosting Firing Line, an hour-long TV show that aired for 33 years, with more than 1,500 episodes. Hendershot (film & media studies, Massachusetts Inst. of Technology; What's Fair on the Air?) explores what made the broadcast so special. Each week guests verbally sparred with Buckley on a range of current subjects. Far from being a conservative echo chamber, Buckley often hosted guests who were his ideological opposites, such as Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver and feminist Germaine Greer. This allowed for greater exploration of a topic over a longer time frame than permitted by regular news shows. The author makes ample use of quotes from the program, which portray the high level of discourse that occurred. VERDICT Readers interested in politics, the modern conservative movement, and media studies will appreciate this highly readable account of this venerable television program.--Chad E. Statler, Lakeland Comm. Coll., Kirtland, OH

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist (starred review) "Hendershot lauds Buckley for the intelligence, honesty, wit, civility, and élan with which he developed meaningful dialogues ... A cogent reminder of what political broadcasting could be."
  • Los Angeles Times "Clever...a good introduction not only to Buckley and smart conservative thought but (strange concept) a sadly disappeared politics of civility."
  • Ira Glasser, American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director 1978-2001 (retired), currently Board President, Drug Policy Alliance "William F. Buckley and his long-running, unique show Firing Line provides a window (if sometimes a curved mirror) through which to see a turbulent and transformative time in American politics. If you want to step into a time machine for a look back, this book is your ticket."
  • Publishers Weekly "Hendershot does more than tell the history of a uniquely influential show and personality; her thorough, compelling, and very readable book provides a three-decade journey through the center of the nation's intellectual life."
  • Kirkus Reviews (starred review) "A thoroughly researched work replete with intelligence, admiration, balanced criticism, and even a bit of nostalgia."
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