In its almost 60 years, much has been written about National Review, especially about those present at its creation.  Most attention, of course, has been given to founder William F. Buckley, Jr., but others there at the beginning, such as James Burnham and Frank Meyer, have not been neglected.  Yet no one, until now, has written at book length about the early National Review writer who ghostwrote one of the most widely read political documents in American history.  A few years later, this same writer wrote a book that sold in the low thousands, but the few who did read it were given a primer on the judicial revolution that would eventually uncover such constitutionally created rights as abortion-on-demand and same-sex marriage.  What happened to that man?  In Living on Fire, Daniel Kelly tells Bozell’s poignant story.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1926, Brent Bozell liked sports, but his passions were public speaking and debate.  So good was he that in 1944, in a nationwide competition involving 127,000 high-school students, he was named the best orator in the country and received a $4,000 college scholarship.  The orator went into the Merchant Marine and later transferred to the Navy, where he wanted to be, not an officer, but a “common sailor.”  Discharged in July 1946, Bozell began his Yale career the following September.

Having known Bozell in the latter years of his life, I was always struck that there could not have been another Yalie who was as indifferent about where he went to college.  But he did three things at Yale that mattered greatly for the rest of his life: He met Bill Buckley; he met and married Buckley’s sister Patricia (Trish); and he became a Catholic.  The friendship with Buckley probably came first, starting at a tryout for the Yale debating team.  Not at all surprisingly, both made the team and became a formidable pair.  Catholicism came next, but Bozell converted (from Episcopalianism) so quietly that even Kelly, a meticulous researcher, cannot state definitively when he did it, though he speculates it was probably in his freshman year.  Finally, he met Trish—the undoubted heroine in the life of Brent Bozell—and married her before graduating from Yale.

Of the debating partners, it’s hard to say which had a brighter college career.  Buckley was elected editor of the newspaper, but Bozell was chosen president of the Yale Political Union and won the highest award Yale bestows for public speaking (and was accepted into Yale Law School).  “He seemed destined,” Kelly writes, “not for conventional success in life but instead for some unpredictable kind of stardom.”  Fame, if not stardom, came quickly.  While in law school, he partnered with Buckley again to write McCarthy and His Enemies, which examined the record of the man popular historians tell us is the most hated senator in U.S. history.  For the fervently anticommunist Bozell, however, Joe McCarthy was defending America against her greatest enemy.  Published in 1954, McCarthy and His Enemies signaled Bozell’s entry into the big leagues of conservative politics.  Soon he was called to Washington to work for McCarthy and also began writing the Washington column for a new conservative magazine, National Review.

Much of what Bozell wrote for the magazine in those early days focused scathingly on the failures of the Republican Party—a party that sounds eerily similar to that of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.  However, one Republican politician did appeal to conservatives—Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona—and they urged him to run for president.  To showcase his solidly conservative views, his supporters wanted Goldwater to write a book.  Of course, it was understood that Goldwater would have neither time nor inclination to do so.  Enter Brent Bozell, who, besides writing for McCarthy, had already written speeches for Goldwater.  In about six weeks, Bozell had written a draft of The Conscience of a Conservative (1960).  By 1964, it had sold 3.5 million copies.  For a long time, Goldwater was reluctant to admit that, other than his name, he had contributed little to the book.  However, he acknowledged years later that Bozell had not only written the book but supplied “all the ideas.”

For his part, Bozell was never eager to identify his name with Conscience of a Conservative, seeming to feel about it the way he did about Yale.  He wanted to get on to other things, in particular a book project that greatly mattered to Bozell the lawyer and student of the Constitution.  The book he had in mind would detail how the Supreme Court under Earl Warren was drastically overhauling the government created by the Founding Fathers so as to make it reflect more faithfully the preferences of the liberal elite.  Just about ten years passed, however, before he finished this book, during which time the man who had been a defender of all things conservative abandoned politics to become a defender of the Catholic Faith.

The transformation began in 1960, when Bozell announced to Trish that the family, which now numbered eight children (two more arrived a few years later), should move to Spain.  Though stunned, she agreed and set about making it happen; one gets the impression that, in her hands, the ObamaCare rollout would have proceeded flawlessly.  To the children, the move would be an adventure, as just about everything was for them where their father was concerned.  For Brent Bozell, it turned out to be far more than an adventure.  In those years, Catholicism permeated virtually every aspect of Spanish life, and that made a profound impression on Bozell.  In Spain, Trish told Kelly, her husband’s

hunger for a Christian society took seed. . . . 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.

The Spanish sojourn lasted about three years, and upon returning home Bozell resumed for a while his political life, writing for National Review and even entering—and losing—a race for Congress.  He also finished his book on the Supreme Court, The Warren Revolution: Reflections on the Consensus Society (1966).  The reception was far different from that of Conscience of a Conservative; it had few reviews and few readers, though it is still admired by some people for its prophetic warning about judicial activism.  But its failure hardly seems to have mattered to Bozell.  By the time of its publication, Trish told Kelly, he was utterly uninterested in its fate.  The seed that took root in Spain was beginning to flower.

During his years with National Review, Bozell occasionally had political differences with Buckley, but it was religion that really widened the gulf between the two men.  After Buckley wrote a column chiding Catholics who insisted abortion should be banned for everyone, saying it contradicted the Second Vatican Council’s declaration of religious liberty, Bozell wrote him saying the “column reeks of relativism” and that “not even the tipsiest representative of the Catholic New Breed has been driven to this bit of recklessness.”  Bozell was so upset that he wanted his name removed from the NR masthead.  Buckley wouldn’t do that, but he couldn’t stop Bozell from starting his own magazine, which he had been thinking of doing as far back as his time in Spain.

The first issue of Triumph, with Trish as its managing editor, appeared in September 1966.  Though some portrayed it as a Catholic National Review, that wasn’t how Bozell saw it.  By 1966, the one-time conservative activist had lost faith in conservative politics.  “Our calling,” he wrote a conservative critic of Triumph, “is to assert Christianity, not Americanism, and the two . . . are not always compatible.”  He went even further with Russell Kirk, telling him that he wanted Triumph “to act as a cutting edge into the great heresies of the age,” which he identified as “the technocratic, materialist, self-seeking, thoroughly un-Christian culture of the West.”

The magazine was published for only ten years, but during that time it carried out its Catholic mission . . . orthodoxly.  While virtually all the American media, religious and secular (including National Review), deplored Humanae vitae, the 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI that re-stated the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception, Triumph rejoiced over it, with an editorial (written by Bozell) entitled “Great Day in the Morning.”  Most American Catholics, even those of the conservative variety, liked their Catholicism mixed with a lot of Americanism, but Triumph served the truths of the Catholic Faith neat, and it did so issue after issue.  Its founding editor also practiced what he preached.  In 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, Bozell, holding aloft a large wooden cross, led a group of pro-life activists into a Washington, D.C., clinic that performed abortions.  The alarmed security force called the Washington police, who arrested Bozell and several other activists.  Years later, Bozell described the demonstration as “the grandfather of Catholic resistance to abortion protected by the American state.”

That the magazine lasted as long as it did was itself a triumph, as it careened from one crisis to another, financial and personal.  What caused its demise?  Kelly says Bozell attributed the failure primarily to spiritual causes: It couldn’t find new ways to cure the nation’s ills, and it gave up trying.  But physical causes played a role, too.  In 1976, the year efforts to keep the magazine afloat finally collapsed, Bozell was formally diagnosed with manic-depression (now known as bipolar disorder), and he would later say that he had short spells of the disease earlier than that, spells that he said “probably contributed to the lack of peace at the magazine.”  With its founder and chief fundraiser sidelined by illness, there was no place for the magazine to go but under.

For long periods over the course of the next eight years, from 1976 to 1984, the disease took Bozell—and his family, especially Trish—on a wild and often excruciating journey that not infrequently garnered embarrassing headlines in the United States (as well as occasionally in Europe).  By 1984 his sickness was, for the most part, in check, but it had taken its toll nevertheless.  The man who once possessed the tall, lean, muscular build of an athlete—and loved long treks off the beaten path—now found walking difficult.  The disease also brought about a spiritual change.

A couple of years into his recovery, Bozell wrote that he believed his illness was God-given, and that he viewed the suffering it brought two ways: as a punishment for his sins, and as an experience that was designed to teach him about mercy.  “[If] I did not feel strongly ‘loved’ by the Lord while it was going on, I do now.”  The man who once battled to change the country, to bring it to Christ, now just wanted to change himself, to be closer to Christ by bringing Christ’s mercy to the poor.

For the remaining years of his life, despite his frailty and occasional bipolar episodes, he devoted himself to works of mercy: in prisons and soup kitchens and in shelters and homes run by Mother Teresa’s nuns or the Little Sisters of the Poor.  When he died in 1997, nuns from both orders were among the hundreds of family members and friends who filled a small church in a poor section of Washington, D.C., for his funeral Mass.  The main celebrant was his son Michael, a Benedictine priest; another son, Brent, founder of the Media Research Center, eulogized a man who gave himself unreservedly “with such beauty, such warmth, such dignity, such friendship.”  Kelly notes that the notables in attendance spanned the spectrum of conservative political thought—“libertarian, anticommunist, traditionalist, eclectic”—and then adds, “they never ceased to regard him as one of their own.”

The moving testimonials that poured in after his death showed that many people wanted to claim him as one of their own.  No wonder.  He was a loyal friend and quick to laugh, a trait he passed on to his children along with his red hair.  The quibble I have with the book is Kelly’s acceptance of the idea that Bozell’s friendship with Buckley soured—though they reconciled shortly before Bozell’s death—because he resented being in Buckley’s shadow, despite there being no evidence that this “unnervingly humble” man, as one admirer wrote of him after his death, ever sought the celebrity status that his former debating partner achieved.  What Bozell regretted, I believe, was the end of the close friendship the two had at Yale, and he tried to keep it alive, despite their differences.  Buckley tried too, but as famously generous as he was with his money, he couldn’t afford to be generous with his time.  He just didn’t have enough of it.

But that is a small quibble.  We had to wait a long time for a biography of Brent Bozell, but Living on Fire has, beautifully and insightfully, made the wait worthwhile.  Sadly, Daniel Kelly died just months after completing this book.  It is safe to say that he, like so many others, admired Bozell deeply.  He ends the book with the words on Bozell’s headstone: “A just and honest man.”


[Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr., by Daniel Kelly (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books) 253 pp., $27.95]