There was a time, back in the early 1960s, when L. Brent Bozell Jr. quite literally defined the conservative conscience. It is long past time that Bozell receive his due. It is therefore great news that one of the first books published by ISI Books this year was Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr. This worthy biography is by Daniel Kelly, a longtime chronicler of the conservative movement who made it a labor of love to finish it before he died, which alas occurred shortly before his handiwork reached print.
Most conservatives these days know the name “Brent Bozell” via the indispensable Media Research Center, founded and indefatigably led by the namesake son of the subject of Kelly’s biography. The good apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Like this generation’s Brent Bozell III, the father (Bozell Jr.) possessed fiery red hair, an unyielding devotion to principle, a great gift for effective communication, and an unquestioned mien of leadership.
(Henceforth, the biography’s subject will be referred to as just “Bozell,” without reference to our friend his son.)
Throughout the biography, Kelly well captures Bozell’s intellectual heft and gift for exquisite writing. He also ably traces Bozell’s rather heartbreaking descent into the pit of what at first seemed a sort of crank-hood but later turned out to be, quite definitively, what we now antiseptically call bipolar disorder. The author also does well in bringing to light what many conservatives did not know, which was that the disorder was not the last word on Bozell. Instead, as Kelly chronicled, there was a poignantly redemptive quality to this good man’s later years — to which we will return, anon.
First, the background, all too little remembered by those today who, if they know of Bozell at all, know him just vaguely as the brother-in-law of William F. Buckley. In their early adulthoods, he was so much more than that; indeed, in the first decade or so of creating a conservative movement from the remnants of opposition to the reputed “consensus” of New Deal liberalism, Bozell was every bit Buckley’s peer and equal.
The two had been a devastatingly effective debate team at Yale, where Bozell also was a leader of the Yale Political Union and the recipient, at graduation, of the college’s Ten Eyck Award, its highest honor for public speaking. Shortly out of law school three years later, Bozell joined with Buckley (and political philosophy professor Willmoore Kendall) to write the controversial McCarthy and his Enemies — a book that, while hard enough on the Wisconsin senator to send the senator’s wife into a rage, nonetheless provided what remains perhaps the single staunchest, comprehensive defense of McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade.
Bozell would then go on to join McCarthy’s staff, even as the senator deteriorated into alcoholism and ruin and as Buckley chose what turned out to be the far more promising path of founding National Review. And, while Bozell would for years regularly contribute to, and be listed on the masthead of, NR, his own bent toward the law and politics led him, inevitably for a hardline conservative in those days, into the career-hobbling realm of repeated defeats both as a national candidate’s aide and as a candidate himself in local races.
Still, Bozell remained from the mid-1950s to mid-60s a superstar in the (admittedly small) conservative pantheon of those years. His superstardom crested, ironically enough, due to a project in which his role was officially anonymous — a project that, probably more than National Review itself, served to launch the conservative enterprise into a mass, popular movement. The project was the game-changing book, ghost-written by Bozell for Sen. Barry Goldwater, called The Conscience of a Conservative. In its first four years, Conscience sold an astonishing 3.5 million copies, and forever set the intellectual template for conservative activism nationwide. As Kelly explains, Goldwater himself added little to the book other than inspiration; the intellectual framework, the lucidity, and the galvanizing prose were all pure Bozell.
To this day, these words from Bozell’s Conscience (and from his conscience) are as familiar to conservative activists as almost anything said even by Ronald Reagan:
I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them….
And so on, through to the passage’s famous assertion that the main “interests” of a legislator’s constituents was not measurable by dollars, but instead that “their main interest is liberty, and … in that cause I am doing the very best I can.”
It is likely that the entire conservative cause has never been encapsulated with quite such eloquent concision.
Word eventually leaked out that the book was at least as much Bozell’s work as Goldwater’s, and by 1962 he (not Goldwater, who also spoke, quite memorably) was officially listed as the keynote speaker before a full Madison Square Garden in a now-famous anti-Communism rally sponsored by the Young Americans for Freedom. An actor named Ronald Reagan wrote a letter to Bozell praising Bozell’s stem-winding address — an address which, as Kelly notes, included an exhortation for the U.S. commander in Berlin to “tear down the Wall!”
Yes, really. 1962.
Bozell went on to play a key role in founding the American Conservative Union in 1964. Alas, though, by then he was already starting to loosen his intellectual bonds with NR’s conservative fusion of anti-Communism, free-market economics, traditional values, along with insistence on American exceptionalism and the primacy of the Constitution. Instead, Bozell’s already fervent Catholicism began to morph into what eventually became what Kelly accurately describes as openly “theocratic” proselytizing.
Bozell in 1966 founded his own magazine, Triumph, specifically as a call to arms for conservative Catholics. This is where the significant sadness of much of the biography starts to become manifest. By the time in 1974 that Triumph folded for good, after years of financial difficulties, Bozell regrettably was calling for a Catholicism so militant that it condemned capitalism, the Constitution, full religious freedom, and the United States itself, even to the degree of joining the Left in spelling our land “Amerika” (yes, with a ‘k’).
The sour tone of the magazine was in some ways present from the very beginning: National Review veteran and Bozell friend Neal Freeman wrote Bozell after just the third issue that he got the sense that “in a secret ballot your writers would have opted for [the name] Armageddon rather than Triumph.”
If there is one major criticism that can be aimed at the biographer, it is that Kelly spends far more ink painstakingly outlining and exhaustively analyzing each step of Bozell’s intellectual descent into anti-American crank-hood than he did in telling the story of Bozell’s earlier years in which he did so much to change the course of American politics. By page 101, less than half of the 217-page volume, Bozell’s entire years of triumph are done, his years of Triumph already begun.
Another valid criticism grows from one of Kelly’s strengths. The author was tremendously adept at incisively capturing, summarizing, and explaining complicated intellectual arguments, in ways readily accessible to most readers. The problem is that all too often Kelly provided his own analyses rather than quoting directly from Bozell or others. It is the age-old writer’s sin of “telling” too much rather than “showing,” and at times it bogs down an account that otherwise is well paced, lively, and eminently readable.
Finally, one can quibble that Kelly gives too little of a sense of the private Bozell; there just aren’t enough vignettes of family life or of personal stories other than those involving his terrible sufferings from episodes of mania and depression. The reader is left with no real idea about whether Bozell had wit, enjoyed hobbies or cultural pursuits, or maintained friendships apart from his ceaseless pursuit of philosophical, governmental, or religious ideals.
Then again, the fact that Kelly finished this book at all, even as he knew he himself was dying, is a remarkable testament to the author’s own devotion. The book overall is a wonderfully elegant read — and never more so than in its moving description of Bozell’s later years. Eventually, his angrily militant Catholicism morphed one last time, into a devotional ethic of mercy and service to the poor, the imprisoned, the suffering, and the dying, all through various Catholic-affiliated charities through which he directly ministered to individuals — even washing, dressing, and helping feed terminal AIDS patients.
Bozell himself died of pneumonia in 1997, his life, as Kelly put it, ultimately a “triumph” after all.
Yet while that last, inspirational poignancy is rightly and thematically the end of this biography, it cannot be the end of this review. Bozell’s decades-long Christian witness may be the most important example from his good life. This, though, is a magazine mostly of civic affairs, and it was as a conservative writer, thinker and speaker that Bozell made the public mark that necessitated this long overdue biography. In that light, conservatives all should learn from one of his key early insights, back when Bozell was at his most politically astute, while taking to heart its lesson that politics should always be the art of honorable persuasion.
Conservatives, Bozell wrote in a 1958 article, do not enjoy a natural majority but, without compromising principle, must always strive to build one: “A conservative electorate has to be created out of that vast uncommitted middle — the great majority of the American people…. The problem is to reach them and to organize them.”
The American nation and the world are much better off because, in his heyday, Brent Bozell Jr. found ways to reach so many with words and thoughts of such a wonderfully galvanizing nature. It still remains for us, again and again, to do the organizing.