After William F. Buckley, Jr. died in 2008, commentators lamented that with him died the last gasp of civility within conservative media, and all that remained were the loutish and infantile harangues of the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. Limbaugh however eulogized Buckley on his radio show, claiming Buckley as an inspiration and progenitor; just the year before, the Media Research Center – a conservative watchdog group founded by Buckley’s nephew L. Brent Bozell III – honored Limbaugh with the William F. Buckley, Jr. Award for Media Excellence, anticipating the line of inheritance that Limbaugh himself would draw after Buckley died. Buckley, however, was an “old right” media celebrity, in contrast to the “new right” icons of Limbaugh, Beck, and O’Reilly. His erudite demeanor, evident here in his exchange with Black Panther Huey Newton, could not be more different than the tone adopted on conservative talk radio and Fox News today.
By the time Newton appeared in 1973 on The Firing Line Buckley, according to John Judis, had softened his public persona, not only because his aggressive and acerbic debating style had discouraged guests from appearing on his show, but also because of his lingering embarrassment over how he had behaved during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when on national television he had threatened to “sock” Gore Vidal in the “goddam face.” By this point, Buckley also had tempered his views on American race relations. Like his contemporary conservatives, Buckley opposed congressional and juridical remedies to segregation as an illegitimate exercise of federal power. In an infamous 1957 editorial in his National Review, Buckley affirmed his belief in the white community as the “advanced race,” whose actions in suppressing the political rights of African Americans are legitimate, since the “claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.”
By the early 1970s Buckley had shelved his overt racism, though he still opposed to legal remedies to discrimination. As he told an incredulous John Lewis on a 1972 episode of The Firing Line, he believed the path towards racial equality should rely on the resources of black Americans and the “good nature” of white Americans. The continuation of segregation and overt acts of oppression, according to Buckley, did not warrant state action, for the violence that such intervention would do to the concept of liberty outweighed the actual violence enacted on black citizens. Unsurprisingly, Buckley was no friend to the Black Panthers, or the vision of black power they espoused, and he attacked Newton in particular in a 1968 column, whose title sums up Buckley’s view of the movement: “Creeping Black Racism.”
In this light, it’s admittedly bizarre that Buckley and Newton would seem to have a friendly conversation about “revolution,” though Buckley’s hesitation in answering the question also speaks to the fundamental brilliance behind Newton posing it: who would conservatives -- who extol tradition, see hierarchies as natural and inevitable, reject reforms intended to solve social and economic injustices, believe in gradual rather than abrupt change – have fought with during the Revolution, and in what ways can they plausibly claim the Founding Fathers as their own? Buckley here, though identifying with the cause of George Washington, is clearly a long way from today’s Tea Partiers and the revolutionary spirit in which they cloak themselves.
But it’s the relationship between conservative media personalities and the issue of civil rights that most interests me. While in this episode, Buckley provided a platform for Newton, who over the course of the hour will dominate the conversation, Buckley used his program, his magazine, and his columns to condemn the means by which civil rights and black power activists alike sought racial justice. These days, Limbaugh claims that he is the true inheritor of Martin Luther King Jr. and the vision of racial equality he articulated, while simultaneously singing songs about “Barack, the Magic Negro,” . Similarly, in his opening credits Glenn Beck includes an image of King, along with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as a patriot in whose footsteps Beck himself follows, while identifying Obama as the primary culprit of racism and race-baiting in the contemporary United States.
Their logic not only does tremendous violence to the goals of civil rights, and profoundly mischaracterizes King and his objectives, but essentially rewrites the relationship between conservatives and race relations emblematized by Buckley, whitewashing how conservatives stood as impediments to, rather than abettors of, the reforms King worked to achieve. While Buckley believed that gradually, through the conversion of hearts and minds, racial equality would arrive, Beck and Limbaugh perpetuate not only the fiction that it is here, but they themselves are the embodiments of the color blind society that the civil rights movement allegedly produced. Though I’m on the fence about which approach is the more harmful and dangerous, at least Buckley performed his with a bit of civility.