The conservative rich kid who found his place on television and in politics

How’s this for a story line? Rich kid grows up on the East Coast, not far from Manhattan. He’s utterly convinced of the rightness of his ideas and not at all shy about telling people who disagree with him that they’re wrong and making it abundantly clear that he thinks he’s smarter than they are. His out-there personality draws the attention of television producers, he gets a TV show, becomes a national celebrity and runs for office as a world-class provocateur, taking on both Democrats and the leaders of his own Republican Party. Even though he has never run for anything before, he runs for the biggest office on the ballot and he is quite clearly the intimidator, not the intimidated.   

That’s the premise of MIT professor Heather Hendershot’s new book, and as you’ll have immediately realized, it’s a true story. The rich kid is Bill Buckley. 

Hendershot is a professor of film and media and her book, “Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line” is less a biography than a recitation of how Buckley, coming to prominence at a time when Republicans were often dismissed by liberal activists and the intellectual elite as “the stupid party,” delighted in using his own considerable intellect and oratorical skills to throw his verbal sparring partners back on their heels. It is to Hendershot’s credit that even though she generally fits more comfortably in the ranks of his ideological opponents, she has an admiration for him that for the most part mutes her dissent.

If there is a lesson here that would be good for us to absorb, it is the reason Hendershot is able and willing to write a positive book about somebody she frequently disagrees with. With some exceptions (James Baldwin, Norman Mailer), Buckley’s televised debates were penetrating but civil, focused on policy not personality. Disagreement did not imply disdain. Buckley, and apparently his guests too, relished the opportunity for serious thoughtful exploration of differences.

I had the smallest of tastes of the Buckley approach. As a young conservative, full of the conviction of my utter brilliance and penetrating insight, I wrote an article I was sure would instantly elevate me to national acclaim and sent it off to Buckley’s magazine, “National Review.” I did not know him then and was thrilled to receive a letter in response. Buckley himself had returned the manuscript with a single word hand-written across the bottom: “hyperbole.” Although I cannot swear that I have never since committed that sin, it is a lesson I’ve remembered for half a century. As Hendershot makes clear in her frequent use of transcripts from Buckley’s televised debates, his weapons were facts (at least his interpretation of them), not exaggerations. I doubt Buckley would have created much work for fact-checkers.

I have a completely unfair criticism of this book, however. I’ve boiled a bit when reviewers, even in positive reviews, have criticized my failure to include topics they thought I should have included even if they were outside the scope of the book I had written. How awkward, then, that I’m going to do the same here. The book is by a media professor about the successful use of media to advance some ideas and counter others (as she says in her title, how Buckley “put liberal America on the firing line”).  Page after page is filled with those transcripts and frankly, after a bit, I found that boring; one can relive the dialogues of the past only so much. Her method showcases Buckley’s erudition, his willingness to engage seriously smart people, etc., but to such an extent that it works best as a training book for would-be television producers. Hendershot is clearly smart and it would have been nice if she had strayed a bit to put more effort into context, meaning, takeaways.  

Bill Buckley was a trailblazer for a conservative intellectual awakening. Buckley, along with M. Stanton Evans, Henry Hazlitt, Friedrich Hayek, John Chamberlain and a few others, began a serious cross-examination of liberal hypotheses that led in time to Ronald Reagan and competitive elections in which conservatives regularly contend for dominance. And, as when he ran against Republican incumbent John Lindsay for mayor of New York City, his focus was on principles not love of party (he was one of the outspoken critics of the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, whose libertarian ideas had begun to captivate young conservatives).  

Hendershot is clever to have used his “Firing Line” television show as an introduction to both Buckley and the rise of conservative intellectual opposition to the liberal orthodoxy. While I would have liked a bit more, readers whose knowledge of Buckley’s heyday is scant will find this a good introduction not only to Buckley and smart conservative thought but  (strange concept) a sadly disappeared politics of civility.     

Edwards is a former member of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives and a former lecturer at Harvard and Princeton universities. He is currently a vice president of the Aspen Institute.

Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line

By Heather Hendershot

Broadside Books: 432 pp., $28.99

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