My evening (or was it afternoon?) with William F. Buckley

I met the great man only once, and it was an odd experience. Michael Kinsley roped me into appearing in a "Firing Line Debate", which he, Kinsley, was chairing; presumably I was being asked because somebody else had dropped out. I was to speak on Buckley's team in favor of the proposition that the budget deficit was a bad thing, or words to that effect. This was back in 1992. In those days a lot of conservatives thought that big deficits were wrong, whereas most liberals thought they mattered not at all and that concern about them was just a ruse for cutting public spending and grinding the faces of the poor.

I had never watched "Firing Line" and I knew Buckley only by his writings and reputation; an innocent foreigner, I did not realise that the debate was essentially just a platform for him to perform. Mike, I recall, kept everybody else to a strict time limit--cutting me off in mid-sentence--in order to give Buckley all the time in the world to orate, with operatic pauses that seemed longer than my entire contribution. At one point, I recall, he read at some length from a sarcastic review I had written of a book by Robert Kuttner, one of our opponents, asking Kuttner exuberantly in conclusion: "What do you think accounts for such animadversion?" What a strange approach, I remember thinking. And surely not terribly effective: Kuttner was entitled to reply, "Why should that be any concern of mine? Ask Crook why he got my book so wrong."

Did we--well, Buckley, I mean--win? Was the motion even put to a vote? I can't remember. It turns out there's an archive of these programs, but this one, unaccountably, is not available for download or purchase. (The synopsis quotes me, I am surprised to see. But did I really say that?)

I came away liking Buckley very much, but resolving not to take part in any more of his debates, for or against. He seemed a charming as well as brilliant man, with a constant twinkle in his eye. National Review says he was "sweet and merry". The one time I met him, so he was.

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