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Crisis of the conservative intellectual

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(Washington Free Beacon) — A few years before he became president, Ronald Reagan appeared on Firing Line. The topic of the January 13, 1978, episode of William F. Buckley Jr.’s long-running debate show were the treaties by which the United States relinquished the Panama Canal to its host country.


Reagan had been against the treaties for years, using them to catch up to President Ford during the 1976 GOP primary. And Buckley had been against them, too, until a visit to Panama changed his mind. What might first appear as a trivial issue at a time of economic stagflation and diminishing American power was in fact incredibly meaningful to large numbers of voters, especially conservative ones. “Certainly it was of major consequence in my own career as a conservative,” Buckley wrote later. “I received much disparaging mail for having deserted first principles, and the stand I took is still here and there cited as evidence of my unreliability as a conservative.”


The debate was between two teams of four. Reagan led the opposition. Alongside him were journalist and presidential aide Patrick J. Buchanan, Latin America specialist Roger Fontaine, and Admiral John McCain Jr. Buckley argued pro. His teammates were National Review senior editor James Burnham, syndicated columnist George F. Will, and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. Former senator Sam Ervin was the judge.


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