- - Monday, March 31, 2014

LIVING ON FIRE: THE LIFE OF L. BRENT BOZELL JR.
By Daniel Kelly
ISI Books, $27.95, 253 pages

It was almost as though Evelyn Waugh had crafted this story: a follow-up to “Brideshead Revisited,” with its tale of a charming if emotionally uncertain English aristocrat fallen into the care and keeping of God.

Leo Brent Bozell Jr., of Nebraska and Yale, was no teddy bear-toting Sebastian Flyte, but the end of his restless, striving time on earth had an odd symmetry with Lord Sebastian’s abandonment of privilege in order to throw himself at God’s doorstep in situations superficially resembling degradation and defeat.

“I’ve seen others like him,” observed Lady Cordelia Flyte, his sister, “and I believe they are very near and dear to God.” With good reason, it would seem.

Brent Bozell’s downward spiral, from paladin of the modern conservative movement at its birth, to “holy fool,” as a Jesuit friend would call him, proves more of an ascent than anything else. A hard, painful one for family and friends, Lord knows: Worsened by Bozell’s bipolar condition, his drinking, his oddities of behavior; redeemed, even so, by his wholehearted embrace of what he described as “the politics of mercy.”

Says Mr. Kelly, the author of this lucid and compassionate biography: “[H]e became a man whose woes exalted him, since they gave him a formidable power to bestow mercy.” The politics he had formerly practiced — the politics of exhortation and organization — sputtered, died in the darkness of conflict.

He took with utmost seriousness the Christian injunction to mercy. “[H]e fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed strangers, brought care and comfort to the sick, and visited prisoners” — most of this through the Catholic Church, to which he had converted early in life but also through personal initiative. The ministry of mercy became his life.

There had been another life — a brilliant one. He had been since 1949 the brother-in-law of William F. Buckley Jr., having married Bill’s favorite sister, Trish, while still at Yale. He had written for Sen. Barry Goldwater the book “The Conscience of a Conservative,” which introduced Goldwater’s philosophical ideas to a broad American public. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Maryland. With Buckley, he wrote a fair-minded appraisal of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign, giving credit where it was due, dissenting from the senator where required to do so by the facts of the case.

He was a notable public speaker. He tilted with Catholic liberals through the medium of a hairy-chested, orthodox Catholic magazine he founded, called Triumph. He led and collaborated in some public forays — embarrassing, really, in their stridency — against the secular heresies he saw all around him in the 1960s and ‘70s, abortion being one of them. He hoped for a Catholic revival that would serve not only God’s ends, but America’s. In his character was a kind of purism that translated better into Christian service than into the practice of secular politics.

Mr. Kelly, a well-credentialed historian and biographer, suggests that the Buckley relationship was for Bozell as much a source of strain and anxiety as a familial joy. Buckley, such was his personality and way of life, tended always to swallow up others in his persona. His brother-in-law had no desire of being swallowed whole. He was his own man.

One possible reason for founding Triumph was Bozell’s hope of making his journalistic mark outside the National Review bailiwick. Buckley was generous with financial support of Bozell’s endeavors, and of his large family — 10 children plus Trish, whose loyalty and love he commanded for a lifetime — but a chilliness developed between the two conservative paladins, never to be wholly dispersed.

Buckley, for his part, notified of his brother-in-law’s death at age 71, in 1997, “let out a sob and, unable to speak, hung up” the telephone. Over which moment, with its emotion and poignancy, Mr. Kelly tactfully draws the veil.

It is a good place in any event to leave aside the clangor of the old political tumults and wars. Bozell had handed in his officer’s commission in that struggle. He had enlisted as a buck private in other causes. He sought now the very reverse of promotion. “Beset by illness, mishap and failure,” writes Mr. Kelly, “Brent went on performing the corporal acts of mercy to the fullest extent his worsening health allowed. Even on the verge of death, he was still at it.”

The Bozell whom Mr. Kelly brings to our notice was in some sense a human wreck, with grandeur in its splintered timbers. Of her pilgrim brother Sebastian, Lady Cordelia Flyte had said, “No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him” — the form of redemption that another sufferer, named Bozell, would raise in his own way and time to unkempt splendor.

William Murchison’s latest book is “The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson” (ISI).