Fifty years ago, conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. ’50 launched his public affairs talk show “Firing Line” despite his distaste for television. When the show aired its 1,504th and final episode 33 years later, it was the longest-running public affairs show with a single host in television history — a title it still holds.
Saturday, exactly eight years after Buckley’s death, the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale hosted a gala at the Omni Hotel celebrating both the semicentennial of Firing Line and the legacy of the man behind it. The more-than-five-hour affair included a debate on the merits of Reaganomics, a montage of highlights from “Firing Line” and a number of tributes from Buckley’s prominent friends and associates, including author and journalist Tom Wolfe GRD ’57, Chairman of the Blackwell Corporation Neal B. Freeman ’62 and reporter and analyst Jeff Greenfield LAW ’67. Nearly 200 of the program’s donors, alums and student fellows attended the commemorative event.
“We’d obviously like to celebrate Buckley’s mission of promoting intellectual diversity, but also the life of Bill Buckley, which was a great American life, a great conservative life,” said Josh Altman ’17, the student president of the Buckley Program. “So tonight we’re celebrating the anniversary of his life’s work, of ‘Firing Line.’”
Although its format varied, the weekly program typically featured Buckley interviewing, debating and in some cases — as nearly all of the speakers at Saturday’s event noted — embarrassing a distinguished guest. The show’s long list of guests included many of the world’s most influential figures, such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Julian Bond, Jack Kerouac, Jorge Luis Borges and Muhammad Ali.
After a brief opening reception, the evening’s festivities kicked off with a debate pitting conservative economist and Senior Contributor at CNBC Lawrence Kudlow against Stephen S. Roach, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and senior lecturer at the School of Management. Despite the debate format, however, the two debaters largely found themselves in agreement, united by their sharp censure of President Barack Obama, the Federal Reserve and the reality-show antics of this election cycle’s Republican presidential debates.
“We thought that there’d be a little bit more contention probably between them,” Student Vice President of the Buckley Program Kyle Tierney ’17 said.
Following the debate and a short intermission, guests sat for a three-course dinner and listened to a series of tributes to Buckley. Multiple speakers recalled how Buckley used his prodigious vocabulary to intimidate guests. Others highlighted his characteristic slouch.
But above all, they praised his sound character, his commitment to open intellectual discourse and his sheer enthusiasm for life.
For historian, political commentator and public official Alvin Felzenberg, a guest at the gathering, the event embodied the spirit of Buckley and of “Firing Line.”
“It is invaluable that we have a program at Yale … that is doing what William Buckley very much loved to do and that was to have debates, to have clashes of opinion [and] to have exchanges of ideas,” said Felzenberg. “You see a lot of that here and the fact that [the event] is filled with students is a wonderful thing.”
Felzenburg is currently working on a biography of Buckley set for release next year.
Correction, Feb. 29: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the gala was a fundraising event. In fact, the gala was solely commemorative.