Politics & Policy

An American Story

Bozell in a speech at Yale, circa 1949
A new biography relates the triumphs and struggles of Brent Bozell.

Editor’s Note: This is the foreword for Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr.

Daniel Kelly, the author of the book you hold in your hands, was a rare blessing to me — a good friend made late in life. When I met him seven years ago, he was toying with the idea of writing this book. I urged him to do it and, over the subsequent years, I pestered him to finish it. He seemed for several reasons to be the right man for a very challenging assignment.

Most important, Dan had seen the young Brent Bozell on a public platform. When Dan was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Brent had come through Madison on a speaking tour. I asked Dan what he thought of Brent’s performance and Dan’s one-word, decidedly unprofessorial review, was: “Wow.” That settled the threshold question. Nobody would have to persuade Dan Kelly that Brent had been an electric speaker, a special forensic talent combining folksy, Midwestern affability with a razor-sharp, legally trained mind. (As just one point of reference, Brent’s debate partner — some would say, junior partner — when Yale beat a previously undefeated Oxford team, was a fellow named William F. Buckley Jr.)

#ad#Secondly, Dan had previously published a full-length biography of James Burnham, the longtime senior editor of National Review magazine. Jim Burnham was a man of the file, the comprehensive file, a habit born of his early experience as a CIA analyst. If Dan had spent a few years immersed in Burnham’s papers, one could be confident that Dan Kelly knew the story of the conservative movement from the ground up. So that box was checked, too.

Finally, Dan was a Catholic mensch. That a man named Daniel Kelly should have sprung from Catholic roots was not much of a surprise, but beyond any theological affinity with Brent, who was a convert to Catholicism, Dan was acutely aware of the vicissitudes of this earthly life. When I met him, Dan was still recovering from liver-transplant surgery. He soon developed a virulent cancer and, perhaps worst of all for a historian, a creeping diabetes that was stealing his eyesight. To borrow a phrase from this book, Dan was suffering from “a Homeric catalogue of infirmities.” He succumbed to those infirmities in late 2012, but not before finishing the manuscript that would become this fine biography. (That Dan completed the book at all was an act of gallantry: In the dimming light of his own life, Dan told me that he couldn’t bear to default on his promise to Brent’s widow, the luminous Patricia Buckley Bozell, who had entrusted Dan with the unvarnished tale of her time with Brent.)

The subject of this book, L. Brent Bozell Jr., had been my predecessor as Washington correspondent for National Review. That gig was my dream job. But in 1964, after only a few months in grade, I resigned to join the Bozell-for-Congress campaign in Maryland. That was a rash career move, obviously, but it was not quite as crazy as it may have appeared. Those of us who worked on Brent’s campaign felt privileged to be boarding the bullet train of contemporary politics. There was much chit-chat about John F. Kennedy’s race for a Boston congressional seat back in the Forties. We Bozell-ites liked to think that we were on something of that same JFK trajectory. A couple of terms in the House, a U.S. Senate race, and soon after that, we fantasized, it would be off to the Casa Blanca for us. That was the raw expectation, anyway. I don’t mean to suggest that we saw it as a slam dunk, Joe and Jack Kennedy–style, but neither did it appear to be a desperation three-ball. Brent was that good.

In Dan Kelly’s sober judgment, that campaign became not the first rung on a ladder reaching to the sky, but, in the clear rendering of hindsight, the apogee of Brent’s political career.

In this absorbing and moving account, Dan Kelly tells the full story of Brent Bozell, both the early triumphs and the heartbreaking stumbles.

By the time he had reached his late thirties, Brent was a man not just of youthful promise but of precocious achievement. Among his signal contributions, to my eye at least, were these: He launched the Goldwater movement, which triggered a seismic shift in American politics; he was one of a handful of men who salvaged the anti-Communist cause from the missteps of its boisterous champion, Senator Joseph McCarthy; and he was the lawyer–cum–policy wonk who framed the telling arguments against judicial activism — at the time, fresh and potent arguments — that reverberate to this very day in our national dialogue. (You will hear those arguments yet again when a candidate is nominated for the next vacancy on the Supreme Court.) Based on these early accomplishments, Brent Bozell must be reckoned, along with Buckley, Burnham, Frank Meyer, and Russell Kirk, as one of the founding fathers of the modern conservative movement.

The second half of Brent’s life was not always pretty. After his early success, he turned from defending the country to defending his Faith. From there, in stages, he became consumed by fervor, fanaticism, and, off at the end, delusion. His life became a protracted struggle in which a brilliant intellect fought valiantly against insidious maladies of the mind. Brent’s downward drift became an agony not only for him but for those who loved him — his wife and ten children, his devoted friends, and his many distant admirers who had been exhilarated by his brief turn upon the public stage. Dan Kelly tells this part of the tale with candor and compassion and, in the last chapter of Brent’s life, a story that was entirely new to me and, I suspect, to most of Brent’s other friends. I won’t ruin it for you here, but I can tell you this much — how Brent spent his last days was both astonishing and, ultimately, redeeming.

The story of Brent Bozell is an American story, a big American story, and one that should be more widely known. Thanks to Dan Kelly, it will be.

— Neal B. Freeman has written for National Review for 50 years.

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