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Buckley's Cease-Fire Line.

Oxford, Mississippi

So here we all are in the Tad Smith Coliseum (home of The Rebels) at "Ole Miss." Across the campus is the Thad Cochran Research Center. Soon to be inaugurated is the Trent Lott Leadership Studies program, which I gather will not be offered as a major. Both distinguished senators were cheerleaders here. Behind the coliseum is a graveyard-a mass grave, really-containing almost 700 bodies from the slaughter at Shiloh. Across the campus is the Lyceum, which took James Meredith so long to penetrate, with the aid of more than 10,000 armed soldiers. Facing it is a memorial to the university's "Grays" with a "Go Tell the Spartans" inscription in Greek on its plinth. (Only one of that 1861 class survived to see it dedicated.) Though locals are now inclined to point out John Grisham's old mansion on the edge of town, pride of place yet goes to William Faulkner's Rowan Oak plantation home. His riding boots are still where he left them on the floor. Sacked as the town's postmaster (a good job, he used to say, but it put you at the beck and call of any sonofabitch who wanted a 2-cent stamp), Faulkner retained a supercilious gentility that got him known round the place as "Count No 'Count," before it was understood that there was money lurking in the keys of his creaky Underwood typewriter.

We are here-Jack Kemp, Michael Kinsley, Robert Kuttner, myself and others-to recognize a master of the supercilious and the genteel. Tonight sees the recording of the very last of William Buckley's Firing Line shows. It's been thirty-three years-the lifespan of the alleged Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike that possible role model, Buckley has chosen to quit while people can still ask why (rather than simply, why not?). Though I can't say I always feel completely at home in Governor Fordice's state, the hospitality and courtesy exceed the billing, and in any case, Buckley deserves some kind of a send-off.

If you go on Crossfire or Nightline or any other of a dozen gab shows, you will infallibly leave the studio with that oppressive sense of what Diderot brilliantly termed l'esprit d'escalier. It is on the way down the staircase that one thinks of the point one really ought to have made. And this is because on these awful programs the whole studio is rigged against the dialectic. The clock is running too fast, there are too many guests, the control room is shouting into the earpiece of the presenter, the assumptions of the topic reflect the needs of the consensus and the pressures of the ratings.

People ask why you don't see Noam Chomsky on the tube. It's not just flat-out bias so much as the fact that his views are literally unutterable in the time and format available. I did my first Firing Line in 1983 and swiftly learned that if I left the studio cursing at what I hadn't said, it was my own fault. Chomsky once told me that during the war in Indochina, the best opportunity he had to give his views on the air was afforded by Buckley. (A repeat appearance was promised but did not materialize. Well, you can't have everything.)

A retrospective of old Firing Lines is shown as a warm-up for the crowd, and there we get to see the very young Jesse Jackson, the very furious William Kunstler, the very urbane J.K. Galbraith. None of them ever got such a chance to present their opinions on (let's say just for a laugh) MacNeil/

Lehrer. Tonight it's two hours devoted to the dry-seeming but actually enthralling question of taxation and Internet commerce. Who else would risk such a thing? Buckley is more languid than usual, as perhaps befits the retiring honoree; it's difficult to believe that this is the same man who snarled so hatefully at Gore Vidal in Chicago in 1968- though mind you, that notorious lapse occurred on someone else's show, and there's no danger, no danger at all, that ABC would even risk such a confrontation today.

I thought I detected suspicious signs of mellowing in Buckley when I met him for a debate, last summer, at the Hoover Institution in Stanford. (The show was Uncommon Knowledge, chaired by Peter Robinson, and one hopes that this will now succeed Firing Line on public television.) The subject was 1968 in retrospect. I was first asked my views on the Vietnam War and invited to say if I would alter them in hindsight. I said my only regret, amounting to shame, was that I hadn't done more to oppose it. Buckley, asked the identical question, said that he now wished the United States had never engaged itself in Vietnam at all. The chairman, looking slightly discomposed, said, Well, you also opposed the Civil Rights Act in those days, didn't you, but you wouldn't say that today, would you? Oh yes, replied Buckley, for whom the phrase "no whit abashed" might have been invented, in point of actual fact he would, too. As our chairman's face filled with alarm, Buckley added that while he might not now oppose the act in the same way, he still felt on balance that it had brought more trouble than it was worth. Whew, I thought. For a moment there I feared we had a love- fest on our hands.

The cover of the New York Times Magazine for November 28 bannered an essay of extreme tendentiousness by Jacob Weisberg, thoughtlessly titled "The Rehabilitation of Joe McCarthy." Liberals of all stripes lined up to say that perhaps the Senator from Wisconsin had been right after all, and Ronald Radosh was given yet another chance to state that the Spanish Civil War was won by the right side. The only anti-McCarthy revisionist quoted was...William Buckley. As Weisberg put it in a clumsy sentence, he "now also endorses the contradictory stance of Whittaker Chambers, who thought McCarthy was too indiscriminate to do the cause of anti-Communism any good and thus deserving of repudiation." Repudiation, no less! And this from Joe McCarthy's oldest and fiercest partisan. I don't know whether Buckley has also modified his once- friendly view of fascism in Spain, but leave it to Radosh to pick up the flag that's too dirty for the right to carry anymore and fawn on Generalissimo Franco too. This entitles me to be sorry that there's no more Firing Line on which I could tell him what a creep I think he is.
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Title Annotation:William Buckley's final Firing Line TV show
Author:Hitchens, Christopher
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Dec 27, 1999
Previous Article:One Fish, Two Fish.
Next Article:Affirmative Action for Men?

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