Firing Line: Steering Wheel and Compass of the Modern Conservative Image

Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:50 AM
Centennial Ballroom H (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Heather Hendershot, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
There is no doubt that the conservative movement seemed to have been utterly defeated when William F. Buckley’s public affairs show Firing Line premiered in 1966. Seemed is the operative word here. Barry Goldwater had been crushed at the ballot box, but a conservative insurgency was growing, coming to a head with Ronald Reagan’s presidential election in 1980. Firing Line did not create the Reagan revolution, but it did function as an intellectual barometer of the social upheaval of the sixties and seventies, showing how one very smart conservative reacted to and made sense of that upheaval. In those same years, conservative activists such as Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich were building social movements on the ground; they were motivating conservatives to open their wallets and go to the voting booth.

But Buckley’s work with Firing Line was of a different timbre. His questions were practical, but also intellectual. As popular conservatism took off—fueled by Weyrich, Viguerie, and others—activists hit the streets, but Buckley remained planted behind his portable blue Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter, pounding out copy on deregulation for National Review or behind his clipboard, on Firing Line, debating cerebral topics. Buckley had guested on other broadcast shows as the token conservative, but now he could stage manage discussion himself, using TV to be proactive rather than reactive in articulating the conservative viewpoint. He probably did not have a masterful long term plan—who knew the show would last thirty-three years?—but taking a helicopter view decades later, we can see how Firing Line engaged with the key issues and personalities that undergirded America’s dramatic shift from left to right from the 1960s to the 1980s. In these years, Buckley would forge a new image for conservatism, virtually from scratch.