The Tea Party's Godfather

April 22, 2014 Topic: Society Region: United States

The Tea Party's Godfather

The life of L. Brent Bozell, Jr., the man who vied with Buckley for leadership of American conservatism.

The Conscience of a Conservative appealed to young people in particular because of its romantic assumption that the heroic individual could galvanize sweeping change through sheer force of will. “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient,” ran one well-known passage, “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.” (No one reading those lines would guess that Goldwater was an isolated and largely ineffective senator, with almost no legislative accomplishments to his name.) The book overturned conventional wisdom by presenting conservatism as an idealistic philosophy attuned to the spiritual nature of humanity, while liberalism stood for mere grubby materialism. And Bozell channeled the restless spirit of the coming decade in his paean to freedom, individual autonomy, existential authenticity and radical action. With totalitarianism threatening at home and abroad, readers were summoned to a life-or-death struggle to “enforce the Constitution and restore the Republic.”

The book’s specific policy stances were also radical. Bozell proposed to devolve to the states all federal programs not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, including social-welfare programs, education, agriculture, public power and public housing. Federal spending would be reduced by 10 percent each year in all areas where “federal participation is undesirable.” Progressive income taxation would be repealed, as would the farm subsidy program. The federal government would be forbidden to impose its understanding of civil rights (other than voting rights) on the Southern states—and in any case, Bozell declared that he was “not impressed by the claim that the Supreme Court’s decision on school integration is the law of the land.” In foreign policy, Bozell said that the United States should act unilaterally, break diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, achieve military superiority in equipment and weapons, and bring total victory over Communism closer by allowing battlefield commanders to deploy “small, clean nuclear weapons.”

With the success of The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater became the conservative movement’s darling, while Bozell was poised to become one of its principal spokesmen. Instead, he gradually moved away from the movement he had helped to birth. While his former soul mate Buckley channeled the conservative movement toward Reagan’s victory in 1980, Bozell made all the wrong moves and backed all the wrong horses. But it is Bozell’s trajectory after 1960, not before, that seems to have greater relevance today. His dissents and divergences anticipated the missteps that have afflicted conservatism over the past decade, particularly in the years since the rise of the Tea Party movement.

Bozell’s first miscalculation was his declaration that, after Goldwater abandoned his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, conservatives should abandon the Republican Party, which had too many Eisenhower-style moderates to be worth saving. The way forward would be to create a purely conservative third party. Bozell later backtracked from this position, but stipulated that the conservative movement should act as a sort of fifth column seeking to infiltrate the GOP. The movement would preserve its freedom of action by ensuring that “its ties with the Republican organization will be, as a practical matter, severable—ideally at a moment’s notice.”3

This, in fact, would be the approach that Goldwater’s supporters pursued, culminating in their seizure of enough delegates to the 1964 GOP convention to secure the presidential nomination for their candidate. But it did the conservatives little good in the long term to portray themselves as disloyal subversives burrowing into the party with the goal of ruling or ruining it. Farther-thinking strategists such as Reagan and Buckley instead would present conservatives as loyal Republicans capable of coexisting with moderate party faithful—so long as ultimate control rested with the conservatives.

Bozell had been one of the founders of the Young Americans for Freedom organization, and along with Goldwater was a principal speaker at the group’s packed anti-Communist rally in Madison Square Garden in March 1962. The conclusion of Bozell’s speech brought the crowd to their feet as he envisioned the orders a conservative president would give upon taking office:

To the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Make the necessary preparations for landing in Havana. To our commander in Berlin: Tear Down the Wall. To our chief of mission in the Congo: Change sides. To the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission: Schedule testing of every nuclear weapon that could conceivably serve the military purpose of the West. To the Chief of the CIA: You are to encourage liberation movements in every nation of the world under Communist domination, including the Soviet Union itself. And you may let it be known that when, in the future, men offer their lives for the ideals of the West, the West will not stand idly by.

As much as Bozell’s young audience loved this apocalyptic rhetoric, however, it struck the vast majority of Americans as dangerous and irresponsible. In The Conscience of a Conservative, Bozell lamented that “a craven fear of death is entering the American consciousness.” But demanding that the American people embrace heroic self-immolation was hardly the way to win their votes. Buckley recognized this when he killed an article Bozell submitted to National Review favoring a preemptive strike against the USSR.

IN EARLY 1961, BOZELL relocated his family to Spain, renting a farm near the sixteenth-century monastic palace El Escorial. Kelly suggests that Bozell may have wanted to move there in order to have a distraction-free environment in which to produce a book about the Warren court, or because costs were low, or because he wanted to live in a thoroughly Catholic society. What the book skips around, however, is the extent to which Bozell was attracted to the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Scholars continue to debate whether Franco is better described as a fascist or an authoritarian. What is indisputable is that Spain under his rule was at odds with American ideals of freedom and democracy and presented a gruesome contradiction to the basically libertarian philosophy Bozell had extolled as Goldwater’s ghostwriter. After Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, thanks in large part to assistance from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, he abolished independent political parties, trade unions and free elections. The regime executed and imprisoned opponents by the thousands, demonized Jews and Freemasons as well as Communists, and suppressed women’s rights. And Bozell can hardly have failed to notice that, for all his praise of decentralization and states’ rights in America, Spain was the most centralized country in Western Europe and enthusiastically persecuted advocates of regional autonomy.

But Bozell was greatly impressed by the ways in which the Spanish regime elevated the power of the Catholic Church and prohibited other religions. The church ran the country’s schools and imposed cultural censorship; divorce, contraceptives and abortion were illegal. Bozell was also enthralled by the throne-and-altar conservatism of the Carlist monarchists (part of Franco’s Falangist coalition) as well as the medieval poverty, piety and passion of Spain. His wife recalled, “In Spain he was swept away . . . by the concept of Christendom. Where before he was a dedicated Catholic, he [now] became a Catholic who believed that all thinking, all action, no matter where and when, should be rooted in Catholicism.”

Bozell began to introduce religio-political absolutism into his writings. In a long article entitled “Freedom or Virtue?” published in National Review in September 1962, Bozell declared that the libertarians in the conservative movement were wrong to believe that freedom was the highest value. In fact, the principal end of humanity was religious salvation, which required virtue. Economic and political freedom were good only to the extent that they supported virtue. And since humans were prone to stray if left to their own devices, government should use its power to inhibit freedom in order to promote virtue—by outlawing divorce, for example. This was consistent with the American tradition, according to Bozell, since the Founding Fathers’ writings contained “not a hint of the ideology of freedom . . . not a word suggesting that freedom is the goal of the commonwealth.”

Bozell wasn’t yet calling for the traditionalists to break off from the libertarians in the conservative coalition. Anti-Communism still provided the glue holding the two wings of the movement together. Bozell instructed liberal Catholics that the church’s mission was not to end poverty but, rather, to lead the Christian West in a “crusade” against Communism. Increasingly, however, Bozell would argue that religious conservatives and libertarians had little in common, and indeed were diametrically opposed on many points.

Religious absolutism prompted Bozell to reevaluate the distinction he and Buckley had carefully drawn between liberalism and Communism in McCarthy and His Enemies. Following the formulation of political philosopher Eric Voegelin, Bozell claimed that liberalism and all other modern revolutionary ideologies that had emerged since the Enlightenment were secular versions of gnosticism. And the goal of all gnostics was to “immanentize the eschaton”: to create the kingdom of heaven on earth.

There was no point in conservatives arguing with liberals, then, since both sides held incompatible views of human nature. Liberal aspirations to improve the lot of the poor, for instance, were expressions of what Bozell called the “hope of perfecting man through the agency of man,” and were foredoomed to failure—for God had taught that the poor would always be with us. And liberals, according to Bozell, were coming to understand that their dream of an earthly paradise could only be fulfilled “not by changing society, but by changing man”—through Communism.4