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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

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.

  • 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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Open to Debate
Open to Debate
How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line
Heather Hendershot
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