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.

Not surprisingly, Bozell deemed the Democratic Party basically illegitimate. He suggested to Buckley that the Kennedy administration had timed the Cuban missile crisis to benefit Democrats in the 1962 elections.5

Bozell became increasingly dissatisfied with the compromises of American democracy and the inconsistencies within traditional Christian conservatism. As Buckley’s protégé Garry Wills shrewdly observed, “I think Brent’s starting point is a distrust of reality. He demands of creation a consistency it cannot afford him; and thinking it an insult to the Creator to accept such a messy universe, he tidies it up by cutting a large part of it away.” And as Bozell continued to marinate in Spanish politics and mysticism, Wills warned, “He is taking an authoritarian course that can do [National Review] no good, I am afraid. Franco may be good for Spain, but transferred to America his kind of rule goes down hard, and there is no reason for anyone to waste time trying to make it go down.”6

BOZELL RETURNED TO THE UNITED STATES by mid-1963, and by early the next year had decided to challenge the congressman in his Maryland district for a seat in the House of Representatives. The incumbent, Charles McC. “Mac” Mathias, was a moderate Republican and Yale graduate from a long-established Maryland family—“the living image of a type that Brent detested,” according to Kelly. What especially raised conservative hackles was the fact that he was one of only a handful of members of Congress from segregated states who openly advocated integration. The district’s registration was three-to-two Democratic, and a New Right candidate like Bozell had no realistic chance of winning in a general election. Nonetheless, anticipating the logic of Tea Partiers decades in the future, he preferred to launch a primary challenge against a moderate Republican in a losing cause than to defeat a Democrat in a more conservative district.

Bozell’s campaign also proved ahead of its time in claiming that Mathias was not a “real” Republican, though his great-grandfather had run on the same ticket as Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the Republican Policy Committee determined that he had supported party positions 83 percent of the time. Bozell cast Mathias as a soft-on-Communism advocate of big-government handouts, and said that his opponent’s support for civil rights would lead to “compulsory integration” at bayonet point. At a time when religion rarely figured into electoral contests, Bozell implied that Mathias’s opposition to mandatory (rather than voluntary) school prayer meant that he was an atheist. (In fact, Mathias was a devout Episcopalian.)

Kelly’s account quotes various Bozell campaign workers to the effect that he was “the greatest natural campaigner” ever. His principal fund-raiser, General Albert C. Wedemeyer, perhaps more accurately described Bozell’s appeal when he wrote to Buckley that “I cannot tolerate middle-of-the-road people. I would rather have them far over in the gutter either to the right or the left but with convictions and the courage to defend them.”7 The Republicans of Maryland’s Sixth District, however, did not warm to Bozell. They were persuaded by the incumbent’s argument that Bozell was a “radical” seeking to impose an “alien doctrine” on the GOP. Mathias trounced the conservative in the primary before going on to win the general election and, later, several terms as senator. Bozell never ran for office again.

In the fall of 1964, Barry Goldwater ran for president on a Republican platform that was almost identical to the radical program Bozell had laid out for him in The Conscience of a Conservative, including opposition to federally enforced Southern desegregation. He went down to smashing defeat in every part of the country outside the Deep South and took most of the GOP with him, reducing the party’s representation in Congress to levels unseen since the New Deal’s high tide. The magnitude of the public rejection made many conservatives rethink their strategy. Frank Meyer, one of Bozell’s intellectual sparring partners at National Review, admitted that conservatives could no longer seek to repeal the entire New Deal outright, since most Americans would interpret the elimination of Social Security and other programs as “a radical tearing down of established institutions. . . . It has to be made very clear that conservatives by their nature proceed in all changes with caution.”8 Chastened leaders like Buckley and Reagan came to realize that conservatism could not win national elections if it refused all compromise and embraced extremism and unpopular positions.

Bozell, however, was prepared to double down. In 1965, he vehemently objected to Buckley’s condemnation of the John Birch Society. When Buckley refused to publish his protest letter, Bozell asked that his name be removed from National Review’s masthead. Indeed, Bozell later turned to the Birch Society’s founder for advice about Triumph, the conservative Catholic magazine he started in 1966. And although Triumph originally was marketed as a CatholicNational Review, Bozell quickly took the publication in a far more radical direction.

In short order, Triumph attacked American Catholic bishops (for their alleged weakness on abortion and failure to crack down on liberal deviancy); the Catholic Church (for its Vatican II reforms); the Constitution (for vesting final authority in “the people” rather than God); the United States (for its moral degeneracy); and the conservative movement (for its secularism). By 1967, the magazine was explicitly calling for Catholic theocracy.

Kelly’s account suggests several reasons for Triumph’s radicalization. Bozell’s jealousy of and growing separation from his more famous brother-in-law led him to take positions that he knew would distress Buckley. Bozell’s incipient mental illness may also have played a role. Conservative thinker Russell Kirk, who briefly wrote for Triumph, felt that Bozell had been possessed by “the demon of the absolute,” which led him to “look for a dogma in all things.”

Buckley felt that his former friend had absorbed the “antinomian” ambience of the late 1960s, when “formulations à outrance” became the norm. Indeed, Triumph closely resembled the leftist revolutionary publications of the time in its millenarianism, its told-you-so delight in urban riots and other ills of the era, and its contempt for America, which it often spelled “Amerika” to emphasize its similarity to Nazi Germany. Bozell boycotted patriotic and civic celebrations and refused to salute the flag.

Bozell even took a page from the Students for a Democratic Society playbook when he staged an antiabortion demonstration at George Washington University in Washington, DC, in August 1970. With his group, the Sons of Thunder (modeled after a pro-Franco Carlist militia), Bozell occupied a campus building, allegedly assaulted police with a large wooden cross and was dragged off to jail, bleeding and in handcuffs. New Right and New Left had come full circle, with Bozell now exhibiting the same sense of martyrdom, exaltation of “direct action” and with-us-or-against-us mentality that characterized his erstwhile political opposites.

But the conservative movement as a whole didn’t follow Bozell’s path, and he was not really, as Kelly half asserts, a founder of the Christian Right. Paul Weyrich spoke for most Christians and conservatives when he worried that Bozell’s actions would lead the public to “equate abortion opposition with Black power and college lunacy.” Right-wing civil disobedience wouldn’t resurface on a large scale until Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue of the 1980s and 1990s. Bozell’s bid to lead an ecumenical antiabortion movement was thwarted by the Catholic bishops (who feared further violence) and his own magazine’s antipathy toward Protestants; Triumph maintained that only Catholics were authentic Christians.

Indeed, for all Bozell’s personal fecundity, he was something of a mule in terms of his influence on the conservative movement as it developed after 1960. He disavowed his bookThe Warren Revolution shortly after its publication in 1966, and hardly any conservative scholars seem to have directly followed his take on constitutional originalism. Few conservatives nowadays call for Catholic theocracy or advocate some of the more interesting ideas that came out of Triumph’s extremism, including its moral opposition to nuclear weapons, its promotion of a quasi-communal economy, and its condemnation of capitalism and the free market. Triumph, which never had more than a few thousand subscribers, finally sputtered to a halt in the mid-1970s, after which Bozell’s mental and financial troubles all but incapacitated him. He spent the last years of his life performing Catholic charitable work and regained some measure of internal peace before dying from pneumonia at age seventy-one.

BOZELL PARTIALLY RECONCILED WITH BUCKLEY before his death, but in the 1960s and 1970s he would have presented National Review’s leader with a series of object lessons on how not to conduct the conservative movement. Now that the movement no longer has Buckley’s guidance, it has tumbled into many of Bozell’s pitfalls. The Tea Party is much closer to Bozell than Buckley in its permanent rebellion against the Republican Party and its leadership, its determination to eliminate any vestiges of moderation from the GOP, its inability to distinguish between liberalism and Communism, and its use of religion to divide rather than unite.

Buckley wanted the modern conservative movement to be intellectually respectable and politically responsible. He knew that the wild, paranoid conspiracy theories of the Birchers made conservatism look “ridiculous and pathological.”9 Like Reagan, he believed that conservatism needed to win friends rather than destroy enemies, and that conservatives had to devise policies to appeal to Americans rather than mocking them as ignorant and cowardly sheep. He knew that traditionalism and libertarianism could only be held together by refraining from taking either belief to its extremes. And he cautioned against the tendency of Bozell and other conservatives toward fanaticism and obsession, which ultimately represented a surrender of individual freedom. His warnings are as pregnant with meaning today as they were then. The problem with living on fire is that you end up flaming out.