Back when I was involved in the late-’90s conservative student movement at Yale, I noticed something. The libertarians, whose philosophy celebrated individual choice and experimental living, were normal and in control of their lives. The traditionalists were disorderly drunks who got kicked out of things. Libertarian pastimes included knitting and swing dancing; trads held contests to see which of them could punch his own face the hardest. (Always bet on the Teamster in this contest.)
As you start to realize that you’re one of these trads—a Gilbert Pinfold, an Isabel from When Sisterhood Was in Flower—you stop asking why a chaotic person would be so drawn to ideals of order. Instead you ask how to uphold order without self-righteousness and cruelty toward those who, like you, consistently fail. How to go from lip service to servanthood?
I picked up Daniel Kelly’s 2014 biography Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr. because I thought it might illuminate this problem of the chaotic conservative. I had no idea how moving and at last transcendent its story would be.
We begin with Bozell’s “Norman Rockwell” childhood in Nebraska. We quickly shift to Yale, where Bozell completes a quiet journey into the Catholic Church—and a much more public conversion to conservatism, at the side of William F. Buckley Jr.
Together they build a movement: National Review, Barry Goldwater (Bozell ghostwrote The Conscience of a Conservative). Both in style and in substance, Bozell was thunderous and abstract, a dorm-room general who proposed a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union.
Already in the late ’50s much of the Bozell approach seems to be formed. He’s idea-driven, more comfortable in attack than praise, a defender of the rules laid down (this is why he broke with NR and opposed white suppression of the black vote) and the prerogatives of Mother Church. Even among the gadflies of the Right he is noticeably lacking in loyalty toward the Republican Party: “the Grand Old Party is recognizably a corpse,” he wrote in 1958.
Bozell wanted smaller government at home, but an aggressive foreign policy requiring (in Kelly’s words) “global security commitments, a string of permanent military alliances, the stationing of U.S. troops around the world, and futile efforts at what would one day be known as ‘nation building.'” Cuba could be freed by American arms, but Southern black people must meet state and individual violence with attempts at “conversion of ‘minds and hearts.'”
Much of Bozell’s political philosophy relied on identifying an “us” who must not be ruled by a “them”—but whether the government was us or them switched based on which issue he was considering. This us-and-them question arises even—at least for me, as a Jewish Christian—in Bozell’s swoony love of Spanish Catholicism. I too love blood-and-roses Spain, but the Spain of Bozell’s dreaming is a kingdom where Jews never lived. He can’t imagine an “us” that includes, humbles itself toward, or reconciles with “them.”
You can glimpse rot in the foundations of the conservative movement: utopianism, raw majoritarianism, an inability to see the ways order’s violent imposition becomes chaos. Buckley’s patrician at-homeness crippled the conservative movement and distorted its Christianity; Bozell’s romantic, angry alienation couldn’t save it.
In the ’60s, hints emerge of disorder in Bozell’s inner life: alcohol, restlessness, lack of emotional stability. His faith becomes more central to his opinions—and instead of baptizing his preexisting politics, Bozell’s self-critical and reflective nature actually prompts him to change. He founds a caustic Catholic magazine, Triumph, in which he calls for unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament; he criticizes multinational corporations and that “moral ass,” Adam Smith; he calls riots in black neighborhoods a rejection of “the cold technological rationalism of secular democracy” in favor of “contact with the divine.” (Today’s “tradinistas” might consider their huge overlap with Bozell’s Triumph-era persona. They, too, imagine government as the Catholic “us” without a “them.”)
It’s easy to love Bozell and his wife, Trish, when they’re standing up to priests who hide away the statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, or try to make them stand to receive Communion instead of kneeling. People trying to oppose authority figures in the name of hierarchy and humility are always admirable. But it’s telling that Triumph received its biggest subscription boost when Trish Bozell tried to slap feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson in the face. Triumph comes across as a magazine about its enemies, not its Beloved.
By the early ’70s, Bozell was already trying—albeit with too much abstraction—to sketch a positive vision: “[the Church’s] ceremonies and feasts, her penances, would set the rhythms of the public life. Her art and music would fill the streets of the public life. Her compassion for sinners and for suffering would shape the soul of the public life.” The political program of this dream-America includes a lot of banning, regulating, and censoring, but he’s increasingly concerned with charity, justice for the poor, dependence rather than self-reliance, and mercy.
Kelly links these changes to a sadder story: the emergence of Bozell’s bipolar disorder, formally diagnosed in 1976. The illness blossomed late, but when it reached its strength, it devastated his life. He would disappear in manic states and turn up in a homeless shelter or a jail—halfway across the world. Delusional, he convinced officials that he was a diplomat; desperate, he drove for hours through the night to talk to random Catholic charitable workers about moral theology. In manic states he acted recklessly and was injured. For his family it was “a long nightmare” of chaos and pain.
Yet from this devastation at last came peace. Bozell found his vocation: mercy. He began to practice what Catholics call the “corporal works of mercy,” plunging tirelessly through Washington, D.C., feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners. Hobbling, good-humored, battered, and indistinguishable from the men he served, giving nicknames to his favorite saints (and to Jesus, Whom he dubbed “Spike”), he became a man of transparent humility and gentleness.
I don’t think Brent Bozell ever developed a politics for the weak instead of the strong (although he kept trying). Political philosophy may always devolve into a philosophy of wielding power, rather than surrendering to that power which is made perfect in weakness and humiliation. But Bozell found a way to live at peace amid his human chaos, trusting an order no man could impose.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.