Willmoore Kendall said that if Brent Bozell had stayed clear of the Buckley circle he might have become a fine senator from his native Nebraska. Kendall was wrong. I can’t imagine Nebraskans electing a theocrat—and a Roman Catholic one at that. But Buckley was responsible neither for Bozell’s theocratic views nor his conversion to Catholicism. Indeed, Bill Buckley was the best thing that ever happened to him. Their relationship was perhaps the single constant in Bozell’s tumultuous life that included conservative stardom, mental illness, and religious repentance, and is constantly in the background of Daniel Kelly’s impressive new biography, Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr.

Bozell arrived at Yale in 1946 after naval service in the Pacific. His friendship with Buckley was inevitable: both veterans, both favorite students of Kendall, both pronouncedly anti-communist. And besides, Buckley had a lovely sister, Trish, whom Bozell fell for and married. For a time they were considered equals, the co-authors of McCarthy and His Enemies. Although McCarthy was ambivalent about the book (“I don’t understand the book. . . too intellectual for me”), he invited Bozell to join his staff as speech writer and legal advisor. Meanwhile Buckley started National Review, and Bozell was there from the beginning, first as a contributor and then as a senior editor. Bozell’s reputation as orator competed with Buckley’s as journalist, and by the 1960s Bozell was so admired as a conservative commentator he was chosen to ghost-write Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. His authorship didn’t remain a secret long, and, as Kelly observes, “when word leaked out . . . he entered conservative stardom’s upper tier.”

He was casually assumed to be a libertarian, until his 1962 essay in National Review, “Freedom or Virtue?” Freedom was all well and good, but government had a higher calling than its protection: in Kelly’s paraphrase, “government should make virtue its leading concern . . . because men’s principal end was salvation, an end they needed virtue to attain.” The intelligent use of government could be an aid to the grace of God. In search of an organically Catholic environment, the Bozells moved to Spain in 1961. Bozell loved it. Although practicalities took the Bozells back to the States after a couple of years, the fervent religious atmosphere of that time never left Bozell. Trish told Kelly, “It was in Spain that [Brent’s] hunger for a Christian society took seed. 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.”

Back in the States, Bozell’s contributions to National Review were becoming rarer, quarrels with it and Buckley more frequent, and the friendship itself more difficult to sustain. It was painful to Bozell (he later admitted) that it was Bill who was “the celebrity brother-in-law” and not he. Not even Bozell’s creation of his own magazine could change that. Bozell founded Triumph in 1966 and it lasted to the mid-1970s. At first it published conservative big names like Russell Kirk and Kendall, and it and National Review shared many regulars. But this collegiality was doomed.

An early editorial noted that “Triumph is invariably called a ‘conservative Catholic’ magazine, but we prefer to be known as ‘radical Christian.’ ” Bozell could have used the language of his umbrella organization, the Society for the Christian Commonwealth, whose announced purpose was to “instaurate the sovereignty of Christ in the social order,” to make America a “confessional state . . . publicly committed to the Catholic Faith.” To put it bluntly, the dream of Triumph was theocracy. Kelly writes of Bozell’s theocratic obsession, “for all its Spanish Catholic inspiration, his vision also suggests that of today’s Muslim militants (though without religious violence and persecution)—that is to say, a society unified by a common revealed religion supported by the civil power, which sees its main purpose as promoting the faith, enforcing God’s will, and aiding the progress of its people toward the joys of paradise.” Given Bozell’s anger that Americans were dismissive of this vision, when not ignorant of it, Triumph developed a tone that can only be called what Kelly calls it: anti-American. Triumph was but one of Bozell’s creations during this period. Another was the anti-abortion youth group, The Sons of Thunder, decked out in the uniform of the Requetés, the Carlist militia from the Spanish Civil War. Bozell joined them for an assault on a D.C. abortion clinic, spent time in jail, and was lucky to suffer a suspended sentence on good behavior. As National Review observed, “Spanish Carlism, whatever its virtues in its native habitat, is surely exotic in the District of Columbia.” Does one begin to suspect a kind of madness?

Bozell had long held politico-religious hopes that fell over the border into fantasy and, Kelly writes, “suggest the possible presence of pathology.” In 1976 he was diagnosed as bipolar and prescribed lithium, which he refused to take. In one manic period he was convinced the Second Coming was less than a day away. During another he was certain of the solution to the Israeli-Arab impasse and managed—so believable he was—to get Menachem Begin on the phone. If these episodes are now slightly comical, they were the dramatic exceptions. Mostly his episodes, manic or depressive, were just sad and embarrassing; as when—now alcoholic to boot—he showed up at parties, drunk, uninvited, and monopolizes the conversation. Although he could be threatening to others, he never was to his beloved Trish, who now was the bread-earner as a freelance editor (her income enhanced from the pockets of Buckley). Yet even she was once unsettled enough to move temporarily with the kids to the ancestral home in Sharon, Connecticut. But mostly, Kelly says, “she doggedly accompanied Brent down his fiery road, unaware that she was making her life a moral triumph.” This was not about a brief period in the Bozells’ lives, but from 1975 until 1984! Then, almost miraculously, it was over.

Until his death in 1997, Bozell took his meds. He returned to journalism, much of it for National Review. This was perhaps his most Catholic period; Catholics are supposed to believe, after all, that Good Works are just as important as Faith. “The Politics of Mercy” was the title of one essay and the theme of his new life. He performed “what the church called the ‘corporal works of mercy’: he fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed strangers, brought care and comfort to the sick, and visited prisoners.” A Jesuit called him a “great intellectual-become-holy-fool.” I suspect that these corporal works of mercy might have had a touch of the manic about them. Nonetheless, he achieved an amazingly graceful degree of serenity. Bozell became a secular associate of the Carmelite order, the irony of which does not escape Kelly.

The onetime admirer of Carlist Requetés thus wound up a Carmelite semimonk, a gauge of the unorthodox course his life had taken (although Carlists and Carmelites harbored a characteristic in common, one . . . Stendhall called “espagnolisme,” a kind of unrestrained, go-for-broke ardor.

The happiest moment of the new life came when his Benedictine son Michael was ordained a priest in 1994. “You are the largest public glory of my life,” he said to his son. Buckley, one of the speakers at the post-
ordination banquet, was overcome by tears and could not continue. The breach in the friendship was obviously healed.

Madman or saint, Bozell was most famously a political animal. He will always be remembered as a McCarthy partisan, as one who helped make Goldwater the man of the hour for a while, as a theocrat, and primarily—as a consequence of that faith—as a conservative at odds with National Review and his truest friend. What put him at odds with Buckley was that he could not countenance Buckley’s compromise with reality—Buckley’s counsel that conservatives should support the candidate who was farthest to the right, while remaining electable. To Bozell, this premium placed upon practical judgments of electability and other realistic compromises constituted a betrayal of the faith.

So what are we to think of this man who was so deeply involved in both the practical realm of politics and the ideological realm of religion? We can see this tension in a picture of Bozell shortly before he died at seventy-one. Compared with photos from his earlier years, he doesn’t just look older—there is no visible connection at all. It’s impossible to judge whether the face expresses pain or joy. Perhaps both. Bozell came to think of his suffering as a blessing. When drawing conclusions about Bozell, Kelly offers this important perspective:

Viewing Brent Bozell’s life from a conventional secular vantage point, many people would probably judge it a failure. The man who had started out with so much promise—and gained so much prominence—wound up helping nuns serve soup to Washington derelicts.

But if judged by the standards he himself came to embrace, his life would surely prompt a different verdict. For whatever people might think of its total trajectory, its ultimate stage would have to be called a triumph.