Daniel Kelly’s posthumously published Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr. would make an incredible movie. More than a decade ago, going under the name A Beautiful Mind, the basic story won Best Picture at the Oscars. The uncanny similarities between John Nash and L. Brent Bozell Jr. include massive contributions to their fields, debilitating madness, and storybook-ending redemption.
If younger conservatives recall Brent Bozell’s name at all, they generally associate it with his son who has waged an unwinnable battle—perhaps inheriting a gene for lost but noble causes—for media fairness, objectivity, and verity. The amnesia is a shame. Bozell the elder found himself at the center of many important debates during the formative period of the postwar conservative movement.
He wrote speeches for Joe McCarthy during his crusade against loyalty and security risks in government and co-wrote, with brother-in-law William F. Buckley, McCarthy and His Enemies, a book that outlines the Wisconsin senator’s political virtues and vices. He was present at the creation of his brother-in-law’s magazine, National Review. According to Kelly, he coined the term “fusionism,” and participated in the seminal debate as a partisan of tradition against Frank Meyer’s ascendant idea of meshing liberty and virtue. He attended the founding meeting of Young Americans for Freedom. He ghostwrote the most important political book of the last century, Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative.
Kelly details how the ghostwriter became a ghost. Bozell, generally prone to extremism of some sort—pushing “world federalism” as a Yale undergraduate, advocating preventative war with the Soviet Union at National Review—alienated friends by forcefully touting hardline positions and increasingly embracing an anti-Americanism strangely moored in Catholicism. More abrasive than his eccentric views to longtime friends such as Buckley was his disturbing behavior.
Though Bozell frequently exhibited flashes of his clever and incisive intellect in his period of mental illness—his publication Triumph depicted American freedom in 1970 as a pregnant Statue of Liberty holding a coat hanger to the skies—he generally provoked pity where he once provoked thought.
Moved by the suffering of Guatemalans, Bozell rushed to aid in earthquake relief, bringing himself but no relief to the Central American country in 1976. “After spending a few days poking around the country,” Kelly informs, “he wound up stranded in Guatemala City with a grand total of sixty-five cents in his pocket.”
“Another delusion made Brent—briefly—a major diplomat,” explains Living on Fire. “Convinced that he had found a solution to the Arab-Israeli impasse, he telephoned Israel’s prime minister, Menachem Begin, to describe the plan. Pretending to be a well-known American cabinet member, he disclosed his mission to the Begin aide who answered the phone, whereupon the aide summoned Begin from the Knesset to take the call. So authentic did Brent sound as he outlined his thinking to Begin that it took time for the latter to realize he was talking with a madman.”
In Northern Ireland, he stole a bus from an army facility and crashed it through the gate to deliver a scheduled speech on time. “In jail, he came to believe that he was the pope and simultaneously the commandant in chief of the IRA,” Kelly writes. “He passed the time working on a volume he later self-mockingly referred to as a ‘book,’ a production his jailers eventually threw out with the trash. Upon release, he found refuge in a shelter for homeless men, where his first significant action was to call a press conference.”
During the 1980s, Bozell learned to manage his manic episodes more carefully and accepted medication as a means to eradicate symptoms. He believed his affliction God-given to help him better understand mercy. With that in mind, he served the poor in soup kitchens, criminals in prison, AIDS patients in hospices, and seniors in old-age homes. Kelly observes that “it could be hard to tell him from the people he aided.”
A failure in his efforts to convert America to his brand of Catholicism, Bozell focused on his own soul. He ended his days taking monastic vows, becoming, in Kelly’s words, “a Carmelite semimonk.” The blaze that had raged so long inside the fiery redhead extinguished in his final years and then completely on April 15, 1997. Along with that and another date 71 years earlier, Bozell’s tombstone also provides this short biography: “A just and honest man.”
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