In half-hour `Firing Line' format, Buckley has only half the bite

Firing Line PBS, week of July 1 (check local listings for day and time). Host: William F. Buckley Jr. Moderator: Michael Kinsley. Guests: Tipper Gore and Doug Simmons. Producer/director: Warren Steibel. For 22 television seasons, nobody managed to tame William F. Buckley Jr., host of ``Firing Line.'' Now, at the start of his 23rd season and of a new half-hour format, Bill Buckley has tamed himself.

In the season premi`ere of the half-hour programs, the topic is ``dirty rock lyrics.'' That's a good, Buckley-esque start. No mealy-mouthed euphemisms for the violence and degradation too often featured in some recordings. And it's a good idea to pit Tipper Gore, co-founder of Parents' Music Resource Center, against Doug Simmons, senior editor for music for The Village Voice.

There's now a moderator, too: Michael Kinsley, editor of the New Republic, who doesn't have much more to do than introduce the guests and the moderator.

Mrs. Gore, whose husband is Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, is an articulate and effective spokesperson for her organization, which advocates the labeling of objectionable content rather than censorship.

Mr. Simmons is an inarticulate and ineffective advocate of total freedom - even from characterizing the content of records. He claims that the current tentative labeling has become a joke in the industry, with the warning system simply a method for young people to easily identify the dirtiest albums. ``They'll grow out of it,'' he says.

And what does Bill Buckley say and do? He looks astounded, mainly - astounded that heavy-metal music is an important part of the contemporary scene, as well as disgusted by the language and attitudes in the lyrics quoted.

When, all too soon, moderator Kinsley asks him to summarize the debate, Buckley can hardly contain himself. After almost a full half-hour of un-Buckley-like restraint, the curmudgeonly conservative we've all grown to enjoy (if not agree with all the time) barely manages to reject the arguments of Mr. Simmons and to tell Mrs. Gore that she is on the right track but is too intimidated by the sound of censorship. ``It is nowhere written in the Constitution that people have a right to peddle merchandise, especially to children, that encourages ... wantonness,'' Buckley says.

Summoning up the name of his alma mater, almost like the Bill Buckley of old, he sounds the alarm:

``At the Yale University library you can't get a book by de Sade without a special clearance from the graduate school. ... I don't see why we can't ... make it truly a punishable crime to sell this kind of junk to children.''

Before Buckley can be challenged as to the propriety of banning Sade to college students at Yale or even at Harvard, Kinsley ends the show just about when it should be getting hot.

I found ``Firing Line'' in its new version to be too laid back, too trivial, too cool and listless. Tamed Buckley is almost lovable in his gentleness. But tamed Buckley is not the Buckley persona which made ``Firing Line'' such an exciting program to watch.

Come on, Bill. I miss the old you.

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