- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 1999

With the end of the century, and, of course, the end of the millennium, comes another grand finale. "Firing Line," for 33 years a television showcase for the conservative philosophy, erudition and consummate charm of William F. Buckley Jr., is going off the air.

In 1966, when the show first began, Mr. Buckley was already known to literary and political circles as the intelligently irreverent author of the provocative book, "God and Man at Yale," the founder of the conservative bimonthly, National Review, not to mention an upstart New York City mayoral candidate. With "Firing Line," however, Mr. Buckley, one of the founding fathers of modern conservatism, achieved an unimagined fame as a distinctly patrician personality whose wit and debating skills have long since become legendary.

Over more than three decades three years longer than Johnny Carson, 12 years longer than Lucy, 22 years longer than "M*A*S*H" and "Cheers" Mr. Buckley has matched wits with the political and cultural lights of moment, beginning with his first guest, socialist and frequent presidential candidate Norman Thomas, and continuing through the years with an assortment of players that included Richard Nixon, Mohammed Ali, Jack Kerouac, former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (45 minutes into the hour-long program, Mr. Macmillan inquired, "Isn't this show over yet?"), Tom Wolfe, Mother Teresa and Allen Ginsberg. Mr. Ginsberg, it's worth remembering, treated his audience to a long Hare Krishna chant, inspiring his host to comment: "That was the most unharried Krishna I ever heard."

But even more than achieving distinction as the longest-running television program with a single host, "Firing Line" performed a novel public service. Not only did it provide for most of its run an hour-long forum for debate of the issues of the day, it featured, for the first time in TV history, an articulate conservative voice on those issues at a time when there were no others being heard. As George F. Will put it in National Review this week, "When 'Firing Line' began, it was to television what Israel is to the Middle East an embattled salient of civilized values in an inhospitable region."

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Mr. Buckley explained the impetus for his show this way: "There was a lot that had been said by National Review that needed to be said face to face to its critics." Clearly, conservatism needed a voice, not to mention a human face, in the television age. It was our great luck that that first voice and face were those of Mr. Buckley's. The leading role he has played so deftly in the resurgence of conservatism as an intellectually attractive philosophy can hardly be overestimated.

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