“Johnny Carson was amused by everything,” William F. Buckley Jr., the godfather of modern American conservatism, once observed about the King of Late Night. Buckley’s exposure to the dominant TV entertainer of the 20th century was, literally, episodic: the product of appearances on “The Tonight Show” so frequent that Buckley lost count of them. “I was his guest a half-dozen times,” he estimated after Carson’s death – by which time the figure was actually twice as high.
Today, the regular presence on the leading late night TV shows of someone like Buckley, an aristocratic intellectual given to speaking in whole paragraphs, even other languages – he began one “Tonight” appearance with several sentences in Spanish – would seem, in a lineup dominated by actors and pop stars, glaringly out of place. Back then, however, Buckley fit right in and we were, as a nation, richer for it.
It was in the 1960s and ’70s that Buckley and Carson reached the apex of their influence in their overlapping fields. As a magazine editor, syndicated newspaper columnist, college lecturer, spy novelist, talk show guest and host of “Firing Line,” the longest-running TV show with a single host, Buckley was even more of a multimedia phenomenon than Carson.
What brought them together was an admirable appetite for eclecticism less discernible in our niche-targeted era: a Warholian conflation of High and Low that placed entertainers, athletes, politicians, novelists, intellectuals, psychics and oddballs on the same TV couch.
Accordingly, Buckley’s visits to Carson’s sets over the years required the conservative gadfly to get along with the glamorous (Dina Merrill, Ann Reinking), the gifted (Robert Klein, Itzhak Perlman), and the goofy (Jeane Dixon, Red Buttons).
Buckley’s durability as a “Tonight Show” guest would also amaze today’s viewers, for whom short-lived fame is the norm. His appearances spanned from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, and both of the show’s locales, Manhattan and Burbank.
While Hollywood was never sympathetic to movement conservatism, Buckley felt at ease in showbiz settings. His mastery of debate at Yale and unerring performer’s instincts, trained on the twin objectives of amusing and enlightening The Uninitiated, left him well prepared for the unforeseen or untoward.
The elasticity of the talk show genre in those days created for special moments. It was on “Tonight” that Buckley addressed the charge that his patrician accent – a staple of the impersonations Robin Williams would perform on the show a decade later – was phony.
“There are certain kinds of accents that strike people as somehow – stilted,” Buckley said, visibly irritated. “I don’t think mine is, because it’s the only one I know.” That exotic accent also made Buckley the subject of a “Tonight” sketch: “Monday Night Football with William F. Buckley,” performed in his absence in November 1983, when the guests included a young Jerry Seinfeld.
Inevitably, there arose between the two TV titans occasional friction. It wasn’t that Buckley expected Carson to have read the latest book he was promoting; far from it. “The safest assumption in the trade,” Buckley wrote in Esquire in 1976, “is that the host of a talk show has not read your book.” He considered it “unprofessional” to imagine Carson could read all of his guests’ books, or watch all of their movies or sitcoms.
Nor was Buckley angry when Carson deliberately paired Buckley with a liberal antagonist, the long-winded and -forgotten David Susskind, whose hatred for Buckley was already well established. After Susskind excoriated Buckley for his “noxious” views, Buckley, addressing Carson directly, lamented that Susskind didn’t know the proper meaning of the word. “What is the proper meaning?” Susskind demanded. “I won’t tell you,” Buckley sniffed. Carson loved it. He welcomed Buckley back another 10 times—Susskind, only once, eight years later.
Where Buckley felt let down was in Carson’s occasional displays of laziness or lack of perspective in his infrequent forays into politics. Buckley told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he had encountered two Johnny Carsons. “One is highly ‘revved up,’ not really following the argument, because he wants to get on to the next entertainment or wisecrack,” he said. “That Carson is difficult to work with. The other Carson is completely different, relaxed and attentive.”
More important, Carson committed what Buckley, in the Cold War, considered the cardinal sin: moral equivalence. Buckley told Playboy:
“When I was last on the Johnny Carson show [the Susskind episode of Jan. 28, 1970] he announced to his mass audience, ‘Well, after all, the reason the Soviet Union arms is because we arm,’ the implicit axiom being that there is obviously no difference between them and us. What makes it possible for the man who has the largest regular audience of anybody in the United States – not excluding the president – to say blandly something like that is wave after wave in the intellectual offensive against epistemological optimism, against the notion that some things are better than others and that we can know what those things are.”
Carson’s susceptibility to such thinking still bothered Buckley a decade later. The Feb. 12, 1980, episode, on which Buckley was promoting “Who’s On First,” the third of his 11 Blackford Oakes spy thrillers, featured this exchange:
BUCKLEY: It’s a little bit intriguing nowadays, in the spy literature, to bring out a book in which the American spies are actually to be distinguished from their guys, in the sense that – not that we do different things, but that we are serving a better cause…. Whatever you say about the United States, we are still making some kind of an effort to keep a few people free. You’d last 10 seconds in the Soviet society. And it makes a difference to –
CARSON: You mean, with the communists.
BUCKLEY: – it makes a difference to a lot of us that you have lasted 15 years.
“And you, too, I might add,” Carson said over the crowd’s clapping – a rare nod from The Great One to the staying power of a fellow TV performer and professional interviewer of others.
Buckley’s final appearance on the show, on June 26, 1987, brought two unexpected moments that “taught me enduringly,” he later reflected. Carson held aloft “Racing Through Paradise: A Pacific Passage,” the third of Buckley’s four sailing journals, to show the audience how heavily the “Tonight” host had annotated it. He closed by telling the 10 million watching at home: “Go out and buy this wonderful book.”
Of course, the means by which millennials consume late night TV has changed markedly since Carson’s heyday: Nightly appointment viewing has been replaced by clip-hunting on social media the next morning, a development that only compounds our fragmentation, our isolation, as members of the national audience Carson once commanded. Still, the late night shows remain a locus of American pop culture, a primary venue for the famous and glamorous. How great would it be if such venues still had room for discussion of an elegantly written memoir about a passage across the Pacific?
After the segment on “Racing Through Paradise” ended, Carson told Buckley something that never came to fruition – but which nonetheless represented, in the world of late night TV, the ultimate compliment, utterly unthinkable in our increasingly algorithmic cultural environment: “I’d like to schedule an entire hour with you.”
James Rosen is chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and the editor of “A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century,” a collection of eulogies by William F. Buckley Jr.