Longtime Firing Line host William F. Buckley Jr. Dies
Founding father of modern conservatism was 82
Stamford, CN – William F. Buckley Jr., the cerebral conservative gadfly and host of Firing Line, one of the longest running programs in TV history, died recently at his home in Stamford, Conn.
Buckley, who suffered from diabetes and emphysema, was found at his desk, “possibly working on a column,” according to his son and fellow writer, Christopher Buckley. He was 82.
A television fixture for 33 years (1966-1999), Firing Line was the longest-running prominent show starring a single host, Buckley topping Johnny Carson by three years.
Known for his verbal dexterity, Buckley’s guests included everyone from Jack Kerouac to Noam Chomsky, Groucho Marx to Muhammad Ali. Every president from Richard Nixon through George Bush Sr. has been on the show.
Firing Line was also a place where Hugh Hefner could rhapsodize on the Playboy “philosophy” and philosopher Mortimer Adler could expound on his elaborate proofs for the existence of God.
When Firing Line began in 1966 it was on commercial television, syndicated from New York’s WOR-TV. After 240 episodes the show moved to public television in 1971, where it remained a PBS staple until Buckley decided to close down the show in 1999. “You’ve got to end sometime,” Buckley told his TV audience. “And I’d just as soon not die onstage.”
The sixth of ten children, Buckley was born on November 24 in New York, son of a multimillionaire with oil holdings in seven countries.
After spending much of his early youth at Roman Catholic schools in France and England, Buckley went on to graduate from Yale with honors in 1950. A year later his blistering rebuke of his alma mater, “God and Man at Yale,” upbraided the university for being a hotbed of atheists and collectivist thinking.
Buckley went on to live a life of rich diversity. He blazed through city streets on a motorcyle and sailed across oceans. He wrote more than 50 books, including a successful series of spy novels, and over 5,000 syndicated newspaper columns. He served as a low-level CIA agent in Mexico for a year and he was the good-natured loser in his failed bid to become the mayor of New York City in 1965.
A founding father of modern American conservatism, he also opposed the war in Iraq and called for the decriminalization of marijuana,
In 1955 he founded National Review, the magazine that became a bastion of conservative thought and influence. At the publication’s 30th anniversary in 1985, Ronald Reagan told Buckley, “You didn’t just part the Red Sea—you rolled it back, dried it up and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism.”
Critics would point out that the magazine also defended the Vietnam War, opposed civil rights legislation and once decaled that “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail.”
Buckley inspired strong opinions on both sides of the political spectrum. Norman Mailer saw Buckley as a “second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row.” But many Reagan acolytes view him as the godfather of conservatism.
In a 1980 issue of National Review, George Will wrote, “Before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagation.”
While his columns and books were widely read, it was his three-decade run on Firing Line that cemented Buckley’s oft-mimicked persona in the minds of the American public.
With his arch aristocratic lilt, his darting reptilian tonque and his overwhelming intellect, with its bottomless vocabulary, Buckley was a favorite of Robin Williams and Johnny Carson, both of whom did impersonations of the Yale blue blood.
Fellow conservative William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, had another perspective of Buckley and the impact of his long-running TV show:
“For people of my generation,” Kristol said when the show ended in 1999, “Bill Buckley was pretty much the first intelligent, witty, well-educated conservative one saw on television. He legitimized conservatism as an intellectual movement and therefore as a political movement.”
Buckley has a memoir about Goldwater, Flying High, coming out this spring and was working on a similar book about Reagan at the time of his death.
Besides his son, Buckley is survived by three sisters, two brothers, a grandaughters and a grandson.