Daniel Kelly , Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr. (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2014), 272 pp., $27.95.
IT SOUNDS LIKE THE PREMISE OF A NOVEL: Two gifted young men meet in college, become inseparable friends and plot the beginnings of a political movement that will irrevocably change American politics. Their contemporaries predict that one will become a prominent writer and editor who will influence both elites and average voters, while the other will become a transformative politician whose unstoppable drive will propel him to the White House. As events unfold, one will achieve all his dreams and more, while the other will go insane and die in obscurity.
Such, in fact, was the real-life story of William F. Buckley Jr. and his best friend and brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell Jr. After graduating from Yale in 1950, they helped to create the modern conservative movement. They channeled the ferment stirred by McCarthyism and established National Review , the magazine that gave the movement intellectual guidance and focus. Buckley rose to national prominence as an author, media personality and arbitrator of internal disputes within the conservative camp. He produced the provocative best seller God and Man at Yale at the age of twenty-five and deployed his wit and charisma to attract recruits to the conservative cause. His quest to move conservatism from the margins to the center of American political life came to fruition with Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980. He ended up as the éminence grise of the movement, only to view what he had wrought with trepidation by the end of his life.
“Hell Bent” Bozell was, for a while, as much of a conservative-movement golden boy as Buckley. In 1960, he both cofounded the activist group Young Americans for Freedom and, as ghostwriter for Barry Goldwater, penned the movement’s canonical text, The Conscience of a Conservative . But Bozell’s own election campaigns failed, and during the 1960s he increasingly distanced himself from Buckley and the New Right that he had helped to create. In 1966, he started the conservative Catholic magazine Triumph, but its hard-edged theocratic politics attracted few readers.
By the mid-1970s, Bozell was in the throes of alcoholism and manic depression. His political and intellectual aspirations cut short, he plunged into a nightmare succession of arrests, forced hospitalizations, escapes and recommitments. When he died in 1997, there were few who remembered him aside from movement veterans and scholars of conservatism.
Living on Fire , the new biography of Bozell written by the historian Daniel Kelly (who died in 2012), is a sympathetic and briskly readable account that is candid about its subject’s personal torments and failure of promise. But in a curious way, it both makes too much and too little of Bozell’s significance. It overestimates his impact on the conservative movement as it developed from the 1960s onward, yet underestimates the ways in which he was a precursor of the snarling, turbulent conservative movement we have today. It is Bozell, not Buckley, who deserves to be remembered as the unacknowledged godfather of the Tea Party.
BOZELL WAS BORN IN 1926 in Omaha, Nebraska. His father and namesake was a founding partner of what became a highly successful advertising and public-relations firm, now operating as Bozell Worldwide. The young Brent enjoyed a prosperous and relatively uneventful boyhood. In 1944, at age eighteen, he won the American Legion’s national oration contest, then served in the merchant marine and navy at the tail end of World War II.
In 1946, he enrolled at Yale University. As Kelly notes, “Brent arrived at Yale a Democrat and an Episcopalian. He left a Republican and a Catholic.” Though Bozell seems to have converted to Catholicism of his own initiative, his political transformation came about thanks largely to his classmate, Bill Buckley. The two became best friends and formed a near-invincible debating partnership, in which Bozell was the grave orator to Buckley’s sardonic verbal assassin. Buckley increasingly influenced Bozell to adopt his blend of conservative Catholic social values, anti–New Deal Republicanism and hard-line anti-Communism. According to Kelly, Bozell even went so far as to acquire some of his friend’s faux-aristocratic mannerisms and verbal tics.
In his senior year of college, Bozell married Buckley’s favorite sister, Patricia. In the fall of 1950, when Bozell was in Yale Law School and living a few doors down from Buckley in a New Haven suburb, his wife gave birth to the first of what would be ten children, all of whom inherited their father’s bright red hair. (Patricia Buckley Bozell later explained that she’d had to abandon horseback riding, an activity at which she excelled, since “I was always pregnant.”)
Buckley and Bozell were captivated by Joseph McCarthy’s headline-grabbing investigations into domestic subversion during the early 1950s. The two were not put off by the Wisconsin senator’s character assassination and anti-Communist hyperbole. Quite the contrary. They indulged in it themselves in the advertisements and radio spots they wrote against Connecticut’s Democratic senator William Benton in the 1952 elections on behalf of the Republican candidate, Prescott Bush. “Senator Benton has pampered and coddled loyalty and security risks in his own office,” they charged. “Senator Benton energetically leads the Administration’s effort to cover up Communist treachery in government.”1