Like thousands of others, I suspect, I’ve spent a lot of time the last few days watching old Firing Line clips on YouTube. By the time I started watching the show in the 1980’s, it had lost some of its bite and confrontational quality. But in the mid-sixties, Buckley was a spectacular interviewer. “Interviewer” is not quite the right word. He was more of a conversation leader, listening at length to his guests–and then playfully challenging what they just said.
Take this 1969 interview with Noam Chomsky. Buckley allows Chomsky to state his case that all American military interventions are somehow an imperialistic form of terror. But at every turn, Buckley offers skepticism and counterarguments. At one point, Chomsky describes how the Saigon army was the first to advance north over the border to invade the Viet Cong. “Did they run into the refugees fleeing South?” asks Buckley. And he gets that signature smile and glint in his eye that says, “I don’t believe a word you’re saying.”
What I noticed, however, was not Buckley’s magical style, but his ability to take on the substance of someone else’s argument. Compare the interview I just described with the one that Bill Moyers conducted with Chomsky in 1988. Moyers, true to form, is a complete sycophant, letting so many of Chomsky’s idiocies go unchallenged.
Buckley was not a professional interviewer–he rarely conducted an interview in his print journalism. But it is safe to say that there is not a single television journalist today who knows how to interview someone while challenging the premise of their argument. Russert likes to trip people up by showing old clips of something they once said. But not once has he every shown the ability to listen to someone’s argument and provide a coherent refutation. Buckley did this every week. It’s a television art form that no longer exists.