Of the few things written about the late L. Brent Bozell Jr., many mention his early brilliance as a conservative intellectual in the 1950s and 1960s and then describe his descent into manic depression in the 1970s along with the physical illnesses that followed. His life has been referred to as a flame that “flared, flickered and finally died.”
But after reading Daniel Kelly’s Living on Fire, a candid but deeply respectful biography of Bozell, I wonder if others have missed the point. Instead of a dimmed light, Bozell’s life was in fact a triumphant blaze that should be remembered not only for his contributions in the fields of politics and journalism, but for grander, more meaningful spiritual achievements.
How can I say this, given that Bozell never achieved public office, started a magazine that folded after a decade, and died in relative obscurity? Afflicted by what Kelly calls “a Homeric catalogue of infirmities”—which included Alzheimer’s, apnea, asthma, back pain, a heart condition, intestinal problems, and osteoporosis—he looked at the end of his life craggy, frail, and spent.
That’s the way he appeared to me in 1991, when he and his wife Trish invited me to their home for several meandering chats about the Catholic Church, the faith, and my possible vocation. In a tribute I wrote after his death in 1997, which I later sent to his son, the Media Research Center’s L. Brent Bozell III, I recalled that “[Bozell’s] voice was tender and patient, and his gaze kind but weak.” After our first conversation: “I was overwhelmed. He had probed my soul.”
Bozell was the kind of man one ends up loving for the sheer goodness and kindness he embodied. Kelly’s genius is that he manages somehow to transmit these qualities to the reader while describing Bozell’s triumphs and failures without once adding an element of pathos to the unfolding story.
Those who have heard of Bozell probably know that he was William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law; an early editor at National Review; and a defender, with Buckley, of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. What is less well known is that he was also the ghostwriter of Barry Goldwater’s 1960 classic The Conscience of a Conservative; a founder of the American Conservative Union; the founder and editor of Triumph, a traditionalist Catholic magazine; director of a summer educational program next to El Escorial in Spain that eventually evolved into Christendom College in Virginia; and, perhaps most important of all, a devoted husband and the loving father of 10 children.
As the reader learns these things in the course of Kelly’s book, the realization dawns that Bozell was no marginal figure in the American conservative movement. He was—along with Russell Kirk, Frank S. Meyer, Willmoore Kendall, and James Burnham—a “founding father,” as his one-time National Review colleague Neal Freeman writes in the foreword, and one of conservatism’s most talented exponents.
In fact, the impression Bozell made on others was unforgettable—and not just because of his “assertively red” hair. Kelly describes one of Bozell’s most memorable speeches, given at an anti-communist rally in March 1962 at Madison Square Garden. Titled “To Magnify the West,” the speech was dazzling, according to those who saw it. It was also unexpectedly theological, for after touching on conservatism’s triumphs, Bozell turned his attention to the “inner nature” of liberalism, which he understood—presumably inspired by philosopher Eric Voegelin—as “nothing but secularized Gnosticism trying to establish a paradise in this world.” Bozell then went on to urge that the West’s “saving truth” be carried across the planet and called for the building of “a global Christendom.”
But Kelly tells “the story of the private man as much as of the public man.” So we learn not just about Bozell’s public speeches and political writings—on American constitutionalism, the rule of law, democracy and liberty, and anti-communism—but also about his family and early childhood, high-school success as an orator, undergraduate education at Yale, conversion to Catholicism, and marriage to Buckley’s younger sister, Patricia (Trish).
We also learn of Bozell’s restlessness and sudden, changing interests. We read of his disagreements with Buckley over National Review editorials that were irreverent towards the Church; of his growing disenchantment with politics and ever tighter embrace of religion; and of his many adventures with his companion in militant Catholicism, Frederick (Fritz) Wilhelmsen. As a former student of Wilhelmsen’s says, “to separate Fritz and Brent in our minds is like trying to separate Peter and Paul.”
When Bozell suddenly moves his entire family to Spain, we are aware of a fundamental change in his outlook. Kelly quotes Trish: “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.”
This experience, more than any other, inspired Bozell to start Triumph. Kelly tells the story of the heady 1966-1976 period when Bozell and a handful of others produced this Catholic magazine that “was to act as a ‘cutting edge into the great heresies of our age’,” which included “the technocratic, materialist, self-seeking, thoroughly un-Christian culture of the West.”
The magazine was so combative that it should be considered a “radical Roman Catholic magazine,” suggests historian Mark Popowski in his 2012 book, The Rise and Fall of Triumph. It not only attacked materialism and secularism but went further, advocating a confessional state for the U.S. with Catholicism as the official religion.
Triumph had its detractors. But it also had unexpected admirers. In a 1994 letter to the editor of another Catholic journal, the New Oxford Review, a rabbi in New York wrote of a “political epiphany” he had undergone reading Bozell’s magazine. “It demanded that men of faith subject all their political, social, and economic theories to God’s scrutiny, stripped of parochial prejudices.”
It was also ahead of its time, becoming one of the first publications to make a priority of “life issues.” In a 1970 fundraising letter—three years before Roe v. Wade—Bozell wrote: “Birth control, abortion, sterilization, dehumanizing pornography and ‘sex education’, population-destroying weapons—all are part of a determined secular policy to lay waste the entire Christian teaching on the sanctity of human life.”
“Nothing set Brent ablaze more quickly than the ‘life issues’,” Kelly notes. To illustrate Bozell’s commitment, Kelly gives an account of a failed 1970 protest outside of George Washington University Hospital. A court decision that year had legalized abortion in the District of Columbia. So Bozell and a group of protestors—including some of Wilhelmsen’s students and an activist youth organization known as the “Sons of Thunder,” dressed in red berets, rosaries, and a patch of the Sacred Heart—held a rally outside the hospital before marching over to ask officials either to stop their deadly work or allow them to baptize the aborted fetuses. Needless to say, things ended badly with Bozell getting hurt, arrested, and booked on various charges.
One learns many things about this incredible man. But it’s the last few chapters of this beautifully moving biography, as Kelly turns his attention to what he calls Bozell’s “mercy stage,” that nearly brought me to tears. Here we learn about the start of Bozell’s manic depression, the embarrassing early incidents, the alcoholism, the inevitable personal injuries, and the intervention of police and, in one instance, embassy officials.
Kelly describes things with such compassion that I found myself wanting to enter the narrative and keep Bozell from harm. Some passages were so touching that I felt obliged to read aloud to my patient wife—until my voice cracked and the growing lump in my throat forced me to stop.
Kelly, who died in 2012 just after completing the manuscript, has done a remarkable job, not just in writing poignantly of Bozell’s life but in adroitly weaving together archival material and interviews with friends and members of the family. Kelly’s writing is clear and wonderfully fluid, and the book moves briskly.
Nevertheless, one wishes it were longer and had included material such as the powerful tribute to Bozell written by Warren H. Carroll, founding president of Christendom College, published in the 1997 edition of the Catholic Social Science Review: “Never in my 65 years have I known a man who suffered so much. He never complained; he offered it all to Christ. His son, speaking at his funeral, could not hold back his tears when he reviewed Brent’s afflictions; and neither can I writing of them.”
Carroll calls attention to one of the most important aspects of Bozell’s outlook on life: “He had a special devotion to Christ’s poor, and a fundamental aversion to that element in American conservatism which glorifies wealth and economic success without counting the human cost.”
To be sure, as once noted in a Modern Age review of Bozell’s essay collection Mustard Seeds, “Bozell’s evangelizing zeal is uncomfortable to comfortable capitalists who do not like to be lectured on their failure to fully address the needs of the poor.” This may explain why Bozell has been practically forgotten by the conservative movement.
He lived by different standards. When Kelly writes that towards the end of his life Bozell would help nuns serve soup to derelicts and “limp through the wards of a nursing home near his own, trying to console patients,” we realize that his entire life had become a work of mercy. Perhaps if conservatives were less concerned with politics and economics and more concerned with culture and spirituality, they too might understand this. The continued relevance and vitality of conservatism may depend on such insights.
In the meantime, we are grateful that Kelly has written this outstanding biography. Bozell is one of the great, unsung figures of 20th-century American history, and his passionate, merciful life is one worth knowing.
Alvino-Mario Fantini is the editor in chief of The European Conservative.