William F. Buckley, Jr., hosting Firing Line (Episode 42, "Academic Freedom and Berkeley") (Photo: Courtesy of Hoover Institution Archives)
Not everyone wore flowers in their hair during the Summer of Love. Some got their kicks from laughing and pouring scorn from the sidelines, like William F. Buckley, Jr., one of the most iconic conservatives of the era.
With his arch wit and possibly affected transatlantic accent, Buckley by turns charmed and offended liberal America on his television show, Firing Line.
You can see for yourself on YouTube, because Buckley left roughly 30 years worth of episodes to the Hoover Institution at Stanford, the conservative research center and think tank.
In one of the more bizarre panel discussions ever held on television, Buckley broke down the hippie phenomenon. "The topic tonight is hippies, and understanding of whom we must acquire or die painfully," Buckley says, before suffering through an awkward hour featuring an obviously intoxicated Jack Kerouac (who wasn't, technically speaking, a hippie. He was a beat.)
Much more elucidating is Buckley's hour with Timothy Leary, a psychologist famous for popularizing psychedelic drugs. He’s the guy who coined the phrase “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”
The conversation, as you can imagine, focused mostly on drug culture.
"I’m trying to see what your problem is, and I think I’ve diagnosed it," Leary says in one engaging exchange.
"Go ahead, doc," Buckley replies, as the audience laughs.
"Your approach to the word 'drugs' is that of, I think, many Americans over the age of 50: when the word 'drug' is mentioned, think of an opiate, something that is an escape, something that takes you away from reality, something you take if you’re a failure," Leary continues. "All the statistics that I’ve seen show that the people who use drugs are pretty well adjusted by any standard or criterion you want to name: income, education, creativity, productivity."
Buckley probably thought Leary was almost willfully naive, ignoring the fact that LSD landed some people in mental hospitals. "You can go to Bellevue tonight, as you know, and find people who took a trip, and the consequences of that we will not know for years, perhaps," Buckley says.
Firing Line started broadcasting in 1966. Today, it provides a compelling showcase for how various political and cultural ideas have held up over time — or not.
According to right-wing columnist George Will, the show also stands in stark contrast to the tenor of conservative conversation today. "It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture," Will recently wrote in the Washington Post.
But if Buckley represents a more civilized, shall we say, expression of conservative politics, the test of time does not prove kind to the meat of many of his arguments.
In 1967, shortly after Ronald Reagan became governor of California, Buckley introducing him as a guest on Firing Line during the Summer of Love, gushing at the electoral victory.
"Perhaps the only mutiny against the political script writers in recent times, it having been ordained that no forthright conservative could be elective to any important executive office, particularly not in the largest and reputedly the most progressive states in the union," Buckley says, with his characteristically droll attitude.
Half a century later, California is still one of the largest and reputedly progressive states in the nation…effectively thumbing its nose at Buckley's self-assured prescriptions for American politics and culture.
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