Book Review: Heather Hendershot’s “Open to Debate”

By: Abhay Rangray

As I watch contemporary political media, I find the sound-bite style of discourse and the meaningless platitudes underwhelming. I wish that a more formal, long-form style of debate were present on television today. Dr. Heather Hendershot shares this lamentation in her book Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line. Thoroughly researched and well written, the book provides thrilling and energetic descriptions of “Firing Line,” William F. Buckley Jr., and the conservative movement.

The book presents direct quotation from Firing Line episodes followed by analysis, thus allowing the reader to wholly and meticulously observe Firing Line at work. The book discusses many guests, including Christopher Hitchens, Phyllis Schlafly, Noam Chomsky, and Eldridge Cleaver, just to name a few. The wide assortment of guests discussed provides insight into how Buckley engaged with different viewpoints. All of this demonstrates what is missing from contemporary political discourse.

The book also provides a fantastic description on William F. Buckley Jr. Hendershot reveals many things about Buckley and the conservative moment at the time of Firing Line’s birth. First, she is able to explain what would be necessary for such a style of television debate to return, an open and charismatic host committed to discourse. Second, she paints a picture of William F. Buckley as a man, humanizing the icon. This ultimately serves to make him more relatable and allows for a stronger investment in the subsequent debates that follow in the book. This technique immerses the reader in the Firing Line debates but also gives more information about what made the show so great, its host. The author shows how Buckley’s dynamic and charming relationship with his guests made the show such a fantastic watch.

Hendershot, throughout the book, reminds the reader that she is a liberal. At first I expected attacks on conservatism and a biased perspective. However, she presents and a clear and unbiased account of all subject’s present. Furthermore, the fact the author is a liberal only proves the thesis of the work. Although Buckley was a staunch conservative, even liberals could watch and enjoy the show since Buckley was not afraid of actual discourse. Hendershot herself makes this point and manages her own political perspectives professionally in the work.

Overall, I found Open to Debate to be an exceptional read. It was well written, thoroughly documented, and provided an accurate and thorough representation of its subjects. The author’s style immerses the reader into the world of Buckley and illustrates all that he and Firing Line have to offer. I recommend this book to anyone whose interested in “Firing Line,” William F. Buckley Jr., and the state of political discourse.

Hendershot laments the rise of new “discourse” in our present media and showcases how great debate and the media can be at their finest. She shows us the techniques that Buckley employed to be such an insightful political commentator. The book ultimately excites the reader with the possibility of a return to more civilized discourse. Perhaps the modern political pundit could redeem himself if he understood Buckley’s vision of discourse.

Abhay Rangray is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College.