The Rise and Fall of the L. Brent BozellsBreaking News
tags: conservatism, Capitol Riots
In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a classic 1943 film that traces, in vaguely allegorical fashion, half a century’s evolution in England’s national character, the actress Deborah Kerr plays a series of roles that represent changing incarnations of the ideal British woman. Were a similar technicolor romance to portray America’s national character over the past seven decades, the right would be represented by a series of characters all named L. Brent Bozell.
In our film’s dramatic climax, L. Brent Bozell IV (“Zeeker” to his friends) is shown in a red baseball cap and blue sweatshirt lettered “Hershey Christian Academy” (with which, that institution assures us, Zeeker is not affiliated) amid an angry crowd chanting “treason!” inside an abandoned Senate chamber. The National Review brand of movement conservatism, launched 66 years earlier under the joint stewardship of Zeeker’s namesake grandad and his great-uncle William F. Buckley, Jr. with the admonition to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop,” now dissolves into violent insurrection as an FBI agent charges Zeeker with disorderly conduct. Fade to black, roll credits.*
But perhaps we should start at the beginning.
The founding L. Brent Bozell, in his time, actually went by the much less pretentious moniker Leo B. Bozell (1886-1946). Leo started out as a newspaper reporter in Wichita, Kansas, rose to become city editor of The Omaha News, and in 1921 cofounded Bozell & Jacobs, an advertising agency that represented Nebraska Power, Mutual of Omaha, and Boys Town, with a fellow newspaperman. It was Leo and his partner, Morris Jacobs, who advised Father Edward J. Flanagan to call his shelter “Boys Town” and then persuaded MGM to make a movie about the place. Bozell & Jacobs also branded Boys Town with the slogan, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother,” a phrase so timeless that in 1969 the Hollies would turn it into a hit song.
When Leo Bozell died at 59, he was a rich man and a pillar of Omaha’s business community. His ad agency had offices in Omaha, Indianapolis, Dallas, Houston, and Shreveport. Bozell’s New York Times obituary described him as past president of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, a lieutenant colonel in the Nebraska State Guard, a leader of Community Chest and Red Cross campaigns, and a vestryman of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. That’s more or less what it meant to be an American conservative during the first half of the twentieth century. Still, Leo and his wife were Democrats and remained so after Franklin Roosevelt became president.
L. Brent Bozell, Jr. (1926-1997) grew up in greater comfort than his father. Where Leo had attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence, his son, who went by “Brent,” went to a Jesuit prep school in Omaha, where he won a $4,000 scholarship for a speech that called Roosevelt’s New Deal “totalitarian.” After a World War II detour into the Merchant Marine, Brent enrolled at Yale, joined the debate team, became best friends with William F. Buckley, converted to Catholicism, and collected bachelor’s and law degrees. Falling, with Buckley, under the influence of the conservative political scientist Willmoore Kendall, Brent became president of the Yale Political Union as a self-declared conservative and gave up his vestigial commitment to world federalism. The following year, he married Buckley’s sister Patricia. (I’m indebted for these details to the 2014 biography Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell, Jr. by Daniel Kelly.)
In 1954, Brent and Buckley published a book titled McCarthy and His Enemies that concluded a “case-by-case breakdown” of McCarthy’s accusations “clearly renders a verdict extremely favorable”—a judgment that even then was so plainly erroneous that it could only have been arrived at by two extremely bright young men in love with disputation. Brent then suggested to his conservative publisher, Henry Regnery, that he follow up with a book proposing that the U.S. start a war with the Soviet Union, which had developed a nuclear bomb five years earlier. Regnery was unenthusiastic, so instead Brent helped McCarthy defend himself in the Army-McCarthy hearings and then joined McCarthy’s Senate staff, where he remained until McCarthy’s death from cirrhosis in 1957.
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