Living On Fire
The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr.
By Daniel Kelly
ISI Books Copyright © 2014 Daniel Kelly
All rights reserved.
The Bozells of Omaha
The year 1921 was a good one for Leo Bozell, the thirty-five-year-old city editor of the Omaha Daily News. That year, a News reporter named Morris Jacobs, who had been doing public relations work on the side, proposed to him that they team up to start an advertising and public relations agency. Leo bought the idea and was soon glad he had. Propelled by its founders' imagination, hard work, and reputation for honest dealing, the firm of Bozell & Jacobs quickly prospered.
As the agency grew, it moved beyond the normal scope of such businesses to work out rescue plans for local institutions in financial trouble. One such operation involved Omaha's Jesuit-run Creighton University, which the Depression was pushing toward bankruptcy. Heeding an appeal from the city's Catholic bishop, and waiving a fee for their services ("We have to pay rent for the space we occupy on this earth," Morris used to say), the Episcopalian Leo and the Jewish Morris devised a plan that kept the university solvent.
A similar cry for help came from a Catholic priest, Edward J. Flanagan, who was struggling to save a shelter for homeless boys. Leo and Morris came up with a plan for the shelter, but didn't stop there. Thinking the shelter would profit from a catchy name, the two ad men suggested "Boys' Town." They then negotiated a deal with Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer for a movie about the shelter. The result reached the screen in 1938 as Boys' Town and won Spencer Tracy, who played Father Flanagan, an Oscar. Such efforts brought Leo and Morris wide acclaim. In the eyes of the Omaha business community, they came to embody the city's civic spirit. In 1943 Leo was chosen to head its Chamber of Commerce.
But Leo launched more than a business in 1921. A childless widower, he married again that year and in the decade that followed fathered two sons and a daughter. The second son, born on January 19, 1926, was named Leo Brent Bozell Jr. Growing into a lanky boy with strong features and striking red hair, Brent, as he was called, brings to mind a Norman Rockwell illustration. He had loving parents to whom he was strongly attached; an older brother, John, who good-naturedly put up with his teasing; and an adoring younger sister, Patricia, whom he walked home from school each day and allowed to tag along when he went off to play with his friends. He shot baskets at a hoop behind the house, romped with the family dog, and directed traffic with a stop-go sign at his school crossing.
Unlike Rockwell's children, he also spent time in reflection, sometimes on matters unusual for a boy his age. One day his mother, Lois, found him deep in thought. What was he thinking about, she asked her nine-year-old son. How the Great Powers should divide Europe, he answered.
Still, if Brent's childhood was a happy one, it wasn't a Rockwellian idyll from start to finish. As a boy, he was highly susceptible to respiratory diseases, especially bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia (which, before antibiotics, was more dangerous than it is today). At age ten he came down with an especially bad case of pneumonia. Warned by the family doctor that a full recovery would require winter weather milder than Omaha's, the Bozells left their home for a bungalow in San Antonio, Texas, where a feverish Brent waited out the cold.
A religious man, Leo was raised in a rigorously Protestant faith but as an adult became a high-church Episcopalian. Lois, who had grown up a Congregationalist, adopted Leo's religion when they married but never took to its quasi-Catholic trappings. Even less, then, did she feel drawn to full-blown Catholicism, and when Leo revealed that he had conceived an interest in the latter, she made it clear that if he converted she wouldn't join him. This was enough to brake his turn to Rome, but his attraction to Catholicism persisted, and eventually he found a way to give it vent.
Linked with Creighton University was a Jesuit high school, Creighton Prep, which enjoyed a good reputation and let non-Catholics enroll. The high school, Leo decided, would be perfect for Brent. Lois's reaction to this idea hasn't been recorded, but if she resisted, she must finally have given in, for in 1940 the Episcopalian Brent was enrolled at Creighton Prep.
* * *
During high school, Brent (or "Boz," as his classmates called him) applied himself to his studies and also found time for the football and basketball teams. But his passions were public speaking and debate. In 1943 he entered the American Legion's nationwide competition for the title of America's best high school orator and took top spot in the contest's Nebraska division. A year later he competed again, and this time, out of a national field of 127,000 contestants, he came in first.
Ordinarily, speeches composed for high school oratory contests are unlikely to hold any interest decades later. But given the adult Brent's work as a ghostwriter for two U.S. senators, a political columnist, and a constitutional scholar, these speeches, offering a glimpse of his early political views, are worth a glance.
His "prepared" speech (the first of the two speeches the competition called for), "Our Constitution: The American Philosophy of Government," reported mounting worry among Americans that their government was no longer "sound," that it had fallen into the hands of people who either held a totalitarian philosophy of government or thought the purpose of government was to cater to special interests. How were things to be put right? In the armed forces, the speech went on, there was talk of servicemen carrying out a cleansing revolution once the war was over. But the right way to recovery lay in returning to the Constitution, which expressed the "true" American philosophy of government: defense of the people's "inherent rights" and use of the government "to secure the common good."
Brent's second, "extemporized," speech delivered a related message. Its subject, which he drew by lot, was the Constitution's Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states or the people all powers the Constitution doesn't specifically assign to the federal government. This amendment, Brent argued, was the Constitution's most important provision, for it summed up the basic American ideal of government: that the ultimate sources of authority are the states and the people.
Brent's parents were Democrats, and so, by inheritance, was he. Yet he clearly viewed the New Deal with some ambivalence. Thanks to New Deal policies, he said in his prepared speech, "tremendous economic and social gains were made," yet this same New Deal was responsible for Washington's "totalitarianism." Although it had been conceived as an "emergency policy" to fight the Depression, the New Deal had developed into a "philosophy of governmental preeminence," and many of its supporters doubted the people's aptitude for self-government.
On the basis of these speeches, the teenage Brent might best be described as an old-fashioned liberal, one whose hostility to large-scale, centralized, bureaucratic government placed him closer to Jefferson than to Roosevelt. This outlook brings to mind a certain kind of conservatism (which in the 1940s rarely went by that name) whose partisans saw themselves as "true" liberals and distinguished themselves from New Deal liberals by dismissing the latter as "pseudo-liberals" or by enclosing the word liberal, when applied to New Dealers, within irony-laden quotation marks.
Photographs of Brent taken at the competition again bring to mind Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers. In some of these photographs he looks like a study in lengths. He is tall (an inch or two over six feet) and thin, and has a long, serious face, a long, straight nose, long, prominent ears, long front teeth, and a long, lean jaw ending in a long, assertive chin. His dress is sober, even solemn. In one of the photos, he wears a dark suit, a white shirt, and a quiet necktie (whose thinness and verticality reprise the lengths theme). All in all, he embodies a cherished American stereotype: an unpolished youth whose face radiates decency and earnestness.
Brent's success won him the prize of a $4,000 college scholarship contributed by the National Association of Manufacturers (worth more than $53,000 in 2013 dollars). Local newspapers reported that he planned to use it at Yale and then go into the diplomatic corps, but first he would serve in the Navy, which he would enter right after graduating from high school.
But in fact he had already set out on a different course. In a letter dated May 1, 1944 (about two weeks after Brent's oratorical triumph), Leo wrote to a relative, "Brent is now in San Mateo in the [cadet school of the] Merchant Marine." And in his Yale class book entry, Brent recorded his Merchant Marine service as having begun in March 1944, several weeks before the oratory contest's final round.
Ardently patriotic, Brent had been eager to go to war since Pearl Harbor, but because of his age, he knew he would have to wait. In January 1944 he turned eighteen. His final term at Creighton Prep still lay ahead, but because he had already earned enough credits to graduate, the school let him leave early to enlist. (His sister, Patty, attended graduation and picked up his diploma.)
After little more than a year in the Merchant Marine and several months at sea in the Pacific, he transferred to the Navy. Following basic training, he again shipped out to the Pacific, where he was assigned to an assault vessel. He preferred the Navy to the other services, he told Patty, because it was the military's "most democratic" branch. He dismissed out of hand the idea of officer training. He didn't want to be an officer, he said, just a "common sailor." In his telling, "there wasn't much to do" in either the Navy or the Merchant Marine: he had spent his time mostly chipping paint. When discharged, he had reached the rank of quartermaster third class.
Meanwhile, another of his high school interests was growing. Before his years at Creighton, Brent had paid no particular attention to religion. But as a student at a school where a Catholic ambience reigned, he began to feel himself drawn to the Catholic Church. His awareness of his father's feelings probably influenced him. So may have his Jesuit teachers' skill at debate, an ability he prized and was especially well prepared to appreciate. His absorption in Catholicism took place gradually, not all in a rush, but it steadily deepened. As time passed, his principal mentor at Creighton, the Reverend Lucius Cervantes, SJ, noticed that he often went to the school chapel to pray. (Some years later Brent told Patty that belief in the Church required more than "reason and logic." The most important thing was "an implicit faith from God," a gift that had to be prayed for "fervently and constantly.") Decades later he wrote that his conversion had had a single cause: "my disbelief in the validity of Anglican orders."
In March 1946 Leo went to San Francisco to visit Brent, who, not yet discharged, was there on leave. He had definitely decided to convert to Catholicism, Leo told his son. To his delight, Brent replied that he had made the same decision. Eager for the Bozells to enter the Church as a family, Leo proposed that he and Brent delay converting for the moment. Given time, he believed, Lois might join them. Bowing to this wish, Brent agreed to wait.
But the day that Leo hoped for never came. Back in Omaha, he felt unwell. He attributed the feeling to fatigue from his recent trip and to the strain of the harsh Nebraska winter, but the real cause proved to be a failing heart. A few days after his return home, he suffered a massive heart attack and died.
* * *
Brent was discharged from the Navy in July 1946. In one respect his postwar future seemed settled, for in September he would matriculate at Yale. But in another, it was hardly settled at all, since his father's death had ruined his plans for conversion. How, he worried, would his mother react to the step. Already deeply upset by her husband's sudden death, she might suffer a breakdown if her son abruptly turned Catholic.
His worry may have been unwarranted. Long aware of her husband's attraction to Catholicism, Lois probably knew that Brent was attracted too and might not have cared at all if he converted. In early 1946 he had asked her to send him a book called Catholic Principle, and she had promptly done so, without any hostile comment. All the same, Brent remained uneasy. When he converted was now up to him, and without his father he wasn't sure how to proceed.
Brent arrived at Yale a Democrat and an Episcopalian. He left a Republican and a Catholic. His political conversion shaped his life for the next two decades. His religious conversion did so — and with growing intensity — until his death. In other ways, too, Brent's future grew out of his college years. It was at Yale that this son of the Great Plains began his transplantation to the East Coast, the region in which he would spend the bulk of his life. It was at Yale, too, that he formed his closest friendship and met the woman who would become his wife and the mother of his ten redheaded children.
Like his Omaha childhood, Brent's Yale years look idyllic. He joined the Elizabethan Society (for students with literary interests); played football and basketball for Trumbull, his residential college (Yale dormitories for upperclassmen); and pledged the Fence Club, the most fashionable fraternity of the day.
He also gave attention to his courses, doing well enough to be admitted to an academic honors society. In one feat of cramming, he plowed through The Brothers Karamazov (930 pages in the edition he read) in thirty-six hours, stopping only for quick meals and a two-hour nap. Upon finishing the book, he pronounced it "very enjoyable."
He spent further time counseling his sister, Patty, now a student at Carleton College, who turned to him for advice on college life. "I think you should make a habit of drinking a beer every once in a while," he told her, since "you have to get used to it sometime. Better getting used to that amount of alcohol gradually than passing out with a couple of cocktails in a couple of years from now." But "be sure," he added, "to keep off the hard stuff." On what Patty called "smooching," he advised, "Never kiss a boy unless you want to ... in the sense of being in the mood for a kiss." And she ought to keep in mind that "the mere kissing itself is not nearly as important as the intensity of the kiss." As for marriage, he said, "Don't be in a hurry! You are still a little girl yet. Ha!"
But his deepest interest at Yale lay in politics. He chose his courses accordingly, pursuing a major combining political science and economics. Well into his sophomore year he identified himself as a liberal, supporting New Deal–style economic and social legislation and calling for a United Nations–based system of world government. As a sophomore, he became chairman of the United World Federalists' Yale chapter, in the postwar years an important group on campus.
To his efforts for global union he brought his talent for oratory as well as a flair for advertising recalling his father's. One morning, freshmen opened their mailboxes to find amid their regular mail live turtles whose shells bore the slogan "Hurry World Government." Very quickly, however, Brent's promotion ran aground. Alerted by outraged animal lovers, the New Haven ASPCA stepped in, and the World Federalist marketing campaign abruptly ended.
Yet Brent broke with liberalism on the issue of national security. A hardliner on the question, he thought liberals underestimated the danger of communism — whether as Soviet expansion abroad or infiltration and espionage at home — and that therefore liberals themselves could pose a threat.
* * *
Brent's passion for politics drew him to Yale's Political Union, a student debating forum modeled on the Oxford Union. No place for the tongue-tied and the bashful, the Union offered the perfect showcase for his talents, and in this arena for gladiators whose sword was the spoken word, the tall, redheaded Nebraskan soon made his mark.
Brent also won a place on Yale's debating team, one of the top squads on the college debating circuit. It was at a tryout for the team that he first met William F. Buckley Jr., who would play a decisive role in his life. Buckley was the sixth of the ten children of a Texas oilman and his Louisiana-born wife, who, after much wandering, had settled in Sharon, Connecticut. Twenty-one when he met Brent, Buckley too was a veteran, having recently finished a two-year hitch in the Army. From his parents he had learned a devoutly observant Catholicism; from his father, the views that defined conservatism at the time: a libertarian dislike of the New Deal's big-government philosophy and a hard-line brand of anticommunism in which concern for internal security played a major part. Buckley's political tilt at first often clashed with Brent's. (For Buckley, World Federalist schemes meant nothing but trouble.) But hard anticommunism forged a powerful bond between them, and despite their differences the two became the closest of friends. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Living On Fire by Daniel Kelly. Copyright © 2014 Daniel Kelly. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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