Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell, by Daniel Kelly (ISI, 272 pp., $27.95)
‘Unforgettable” — that’s probably the best word for L. Brent Bozell Jr. I knew him as a brilliant editorialist, a deeply committed Catholic, a devoted father of ten, and a passionate public speaker who could bring thousands to their feet. I also knew him as my godfather. He was on fire to change the world and he did not stop trying until his flame flared, flickered, and finally died.
Most of us have encountered someone who seizes our attention and perhaps captures our allegiance, not by wealth or power or position but by the intensity of his personality and the audacity of his vision. He is a visionary who brooks no compromise and accepts no limits. He will not let up until he achieves his goal — political, religious, cultural, whatever it may be — or is stopped in his tracks. He is not comfortable to be around, as he challenges you to consider what you are doing with your life.
Capturing such an incandescent individual in a biography of a few hundred pages is a daunting undertaking, and yet Daniel Kelly has done just that in Living on Fire. It is an exquisitely balanced and touching portrait of a man who at 38 wrote one of the most successful political books in modern times and who ended his life far from the public spotlight, seeking only the opportunity to care for the poorest of the poor.
Kelly, a distinguished professor of history for many years at New York University and the City University of New York, recounts some of what Bozell managed to accomplish before he was brought low by bipolar disorder — what we used to call manic depression — and alcoholism.
He was one half of a Yale debate team — the other half was William F. Buckley Jr., his roommate and, later, brother-in-law — that trounced all opponents, including a heavily favored team from Oxford University “that stalked off without shaking hands.”
Legend has it that, as they approached graduation, the two young conservatives agreed to seek national positions commensurate with their positions at Yale. Buckley the journalist would wield influence through the written word, while Bozell the orator “would orate his way into the White House.” Together, they would end up running the country.
Bozell was co-author, along with Buckley, of McCarthy and His Enemies, a judicious analysis of the famous anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin that wound up selling more than 30,000 copies. If McCarthy had sometimes gone too far, the co-authors wrote, his campaign against Communist infiltrators in the federal bureaucracy remained one “around which men of good will and stern morality [could] close ranks.”
He was a senior editor of National Review; his NR column, “National Trends,” dealt most often with national politics but sometimes shifted to foreign affairs, particularly the Cold War. Kelly describes how Bozell, a painstakingly slow writer, would delay his NR column until the last moment and then phone it in with minutes to spare before it had to be sent to the printer. “Although he never missed a deadline, it was rumored that the day an issue closed, the secretary [of the managing editor] began downing tranquilizers at noon.”
A favorite domestic target of Bozell was the Supreme Court, which he called “the partisan agent of a fashionable ideology, set on accomplishing by judicial edict what the ideology could not achieve through legitimate political channels.” Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, Bozell wrote, the Court’s “controlling purpose” was “to give legal sanction . . . to the political judgments of the Establishment,” a gross violation of the judiciary’s constitutional function. He would develop this theme in his prescient 1966 book, The Warren Revolution, which anticipated the epic constitutional battles of the 1980s that continue to this day.
Although it did not carry his name, he was the ghost writer of the most widely read political manifesto of the 1960s — Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Some 3.5 million copies would be sold and distributed. It set forth a conservative platform — of limited government (including a flat tax and an end to farm subsidies) as well as a strong national defense — that has served the Right as a political guide ever since.
Kelly writes that when word leaked out that Bozell had written the Goldwater book — now part of “the movement’s holy writ” — he entered “conservative stardom’s upper tier.” Suddenly, he seemed to be everywhere, running for Congress in Maryland, helping to found the American Conservative Union, being present at the creation of the Philadelphia Society, and finishing his opus on the Warren Court. But all the while he had in mind something that had never been attempted in America — a conservative Catholic political magazine. The more he reflected on it, the more convinced he was that launching the magazine was his calling, that it was his duty to serve “the Catholic cause.”
In its short ten-year history, writes Kelly, Triumph took on liturgical reform (no more “hootenanny” Masses!); life issues, such as birth control, abortion, and sex education; and secular topics, such as Vietnam. Liberalism was invariably indicted as the principal cause of America’s moral and cultural decay. The magazine used strong, blunt language, calling for direct action to bring about the changes it felt were urgently needed. “Triumph is invariably called a ‘conservative Catholic’ magazine,” the editors wrote, “but we prefer to be known as ‘radical Christian.’”
Bozell would discover that there are not many radical Christians on the right, and Kelly notes that conservative Catholics stopped subscribing to the magazine “in droves.” From a peak of 30,000 subscribers in the first years, it declined steadily, reaching an estimated low of 3,000. But, as Triumph’s prospects declined, Bozell’s dreams expanded. The manic side of his disorder, fueled by copious amounts of bourbon, black coffee, and cigarettes, dominated. Many of his ideas were unrealistic, but others met proven needs.
The time had come, Bozell felt, to make America and eventually the whole world Catholic. He envisaged a national lobby against the legalization of abortion. The idea became Americans United for Life, one of the most effective pro-life groups in the country. Seeking to inculcate the Faith in young laypeople, he organized an eight-week summer school in Spain that was revamped into a four-year liberal-arts college, Christendom College, a traditionalist Catholic school that flourishes to this day.
In the spring of 1970, after a court decision legalized abortion in Washington, D.C., Kelly recounts, Bozell mounted what was probably the nation’s first anti-abortion protest rally. Naming themselves the Sons of Thunder (see Mark 3:17) and dressed in red berets and khaki shirts with a patch bearing the image of the Sacred Heart, he and a couple of other leaders marshaled several hundred activists at a park across from the George Washington University Hospital clinic, where abortions were being performed. Shouting “Viva Cristo Rey!” Bozell took a small group of the protesters across the street to deliver his request for permission to baptize fetuses. There was a scuffle between them and hospital guards, a glass room was shattered, the police arrived, and Bozell was arrested and placed in handcuffs.
The June protest, Kelly says, “sealed Brent’s fate” as a Catholic leader. Fearing further violence, the Catholic bishops refused to endorse an ecumenical right-to-life congress he proposed. Found guilty of unlawful entry and damaging property, he received a suspended sentence and five years’ probation along with a stern warning that future protests could land him in prison.
Frustrated by “Catholic docility” in the face of the hedonistic counterculture, and unable to persuade many of his old political friends to support a pro-life constitutional amendment, Bozell turned increasingly radical and critical of the United States, even, according to Kelly, accepting the New Left’s practice of spelling America with a “k” and not a “c.”
Exactly when Bozell became a victim of bipolar disorder is difficult to pinpoint, but he had been subject to wide swings of mood and behavior for years, alternating between extreme euphoria and apathy, often on the same day. He was officially diagnosed in 1976, marking the start of a manic stage so disconnected from reality that his close friend and colleague Mike Lawrence referred to the ensuing years as a “lost decade.” Lithium could moderate the bipolar swings that now ruled him, Kelly writes, but Bozell hated “the feeling of mental suffocation it produced.” Formerly a heavy drinker, Bozell was now an alcoholic. Manic episodes took him to Guatemala on a mission of mercy among the poor and to the Pax Center, a Catholic peace-and-justice community in Erie, Pa., whose director described him as “a magnificent wreck: brilliant, ardent, relentless, and well-read, and yet a wreck, like a Mercedes in a ditch with a busted axle and broken glass on the seats.”
However, in the 1980s, Brent Bozell entered into a new period, taking his medication regularly and stopping his drinking. He took up writing again, focusing on the meaning of mercy, defining it as “an attempt to alleviate the suffering of another, motivated by love.” He pronounced the duty of mercy binding on all Christians, especially a North American obligation to aid poverty-stricken Central America. His personal response was to help a number of organizations across the Washington area, including a soup kitchen in a poor Hispanic enclave, the Lorton prison in northern Virginia, and a shelter for the poor established by the Sisters of Charity.
“Beset by illness, mishap, and failure,” writes Kelly toward the end of his sensitive yet candid biography, “Brent went on performing the corporal works of mercy to the fullest extent his worsening health allowed. Even on the verge of death, he was still at it.”
In April 1992, Bozell became a Third Order Discalced Carmelite, calling his joining of this religious order a birthday present for his beloved wife Trish, close by his side throughout his tumultuous life. In late 1996 he was forced to enter an assisted-living home but he continued his works of mercy as best he could. In his last weeks, he would “limp through the wards of a nursing home near his own, trying to console patients.” His funeral, held at Washington’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel, was attended by conservatives of every stripe — libertarian, anti-Communist, traditionalist — who celebrated his many contributions to the movement. His tombstone reads, “A just and honest man.”
In the book’s afterword, Daniel Kelly writes that many people might consider Brent Bozell to have been a failure, a man of much promise and prominence who “wound up helping nuns serve soup to Washington derelicts.” But Kelly rejects any such conclusion, saying that by the standards Bozell embraced and acted upon, his life was a triumph. So, too, is this moving, beautifully written biography.
– Mr. Edwards is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, and the author of Leading the Way: The Story of Ed Feulner and the Heritage Foundation.