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.