In his salad days, during the high Cold War of the 1950s and ’60s, L. Brent Bozell Jr. was a notorious right-wing polemicist whose ideas influenced everyone from Joseph McCarthy to Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan. Yet he always bristled at the misfortune of living his entire adult life in the shadow of a celebrity relative. “It’s a hindrance to be William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law, because people are under the assumption that I share his views,” Bozell told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1971. “I do not. He is the right-wing establishment. I consider myself outside the establishment.”
Buckley and Bozell, relatives by marriage whose once-tight friendship eventually splintered over political arguments, remain a fascinating study in contrasts. Their divergent paths illuminate the conflicting factions of the right. After a period as an enfant terrible in his 20s, Buckley settled down to become a consummate player of the game of respectability politics, an activist whose prime achievement was to recast the sentiments of the radical right by using polysyllabic obfuscation to gain a hearing in mainstream politics. Bozell took the harder road of the militant agitator, constantly organizing radicalized cadres to push the most reactionary line possible on everything from nuclear war to abortion.
Buckley was a cultural superstar, a pundit whose distinctive drawl was recognizable enough to be regularly mimicked by Robin Williams (in the Disney cartoon Aladdin, among other places). This fame created the illusion that Buckley was the true face of the American right. But the Trump era and its aftermath make it clear that Buckley’s renown was a triumph of marketing rather than a reflection of lasting influence. Since his death in 2008, Buckley seems a diminished figure from an increasingly distant past. By contrast, Bozell, who died in 1997, now appears to have been the true prophet of an unrestrained right that openly embraces authoritarianism. As Jacob Heilbrunn recently noted in Politico, although he was “often dismissed as a kook during his lifetime,” Bozell “did more than perhaps anyone to create the blueprint for the militant conservatism now triumphant at the high court and the grassroots.”
Buckley and Bozell met at Yale in 1946, quickly bonding over religion (Buckley was a cradle Catholic, Bozell well down the path to conversion) as well as a passion for debating politics (both men falling under the sway of the anti-communist firebrand Willmoore Kendall, a political scientist who was a McCarthyite avant la lettre). Bozell’s marriage in 1949 to Buckley’s sister Patricia only cemented the alliance. Taking Kendall’s love of red-baiting as a model, the two friends even as undergraduates were preparing for a life of fighting “the left” (an umbrella category that for them extended from Joseph Stalin to the milquetoast liberalism of Adlai Stevenson).
Buckley scored the first big hit with God and Man at Yale (1951), using Kendall’s arguments against academic freedom to argue that the Ivy League should be purged of atheists and Keynesian economics. In 1954, Buckley and Bozell collaborated on a follow-up tome, McCarthy and His Enemies, a defense of the Wisconsin demagogue. The following year, Buckley founded National Review, which quickly became the flagship journal of the emerging rabid right. Bozell was one of the new publication’s most valued writers.
In those days of youthful élan, Buckley and Bozell made a formidable duo. But as Buckley became a cultural luminary, a divide opened up between them. Buckley was a synthesist and a popularizer. The American right was deeply divided among competing factions (traditionalists, libertarians, foreign policy hawks). Buckley’s goal as editor was to keep the factions together as a viable coalition (under a makeshift ideology National Review called “fusionism”) while also promoting these ideas to a broader public.
Bozell, who took to Catholicism with not just enthusiasm but fanaticism, had no interest in coalition-building: He wanted to set the agenda. The core of Bozell’s politics was a theocratic zeal to impose reactionary Catholicism on the United States (in his wilder moments he aspired to create what his biographer Daniel Kelly calls a “global Christendom”).
To ensure the triumph of Christendom, Bozell advocated a holy war against the Soviet Union (with preemptive nuclear attack if necessary). He moved his family to fascist Spain (seeing in Franco’s regime a model for how a living Christianity could reject secularism and impose piety). He wrote a book on the Warren Court, arguing for a root-and-branch judicial revolution based on rejecting modern theory and returning to historical norms (a precursor of originalism). He and his wife organized a Catholic youth group that launched some of the earliest violent attacks on abortion clinics. He created a magazine titled Triumph that advocated a Catholic theocracy.
Buckley grew embarrassed by his brother-in-law (although he continued to provide financial support to the improvident Bozells). In retrospect, Buckley’s hankering after respectability led him to shy away from culture war strife, initially equivocating on abortion until he met with pushback from Bozell. It was Bozell, not Buckley, who proved to be the forerunner of our contemporary theocratic right with its unabashed hostility to democracy. Buckley’s fame owed much to the fact that he gave many liberals the imaginary conservatism they wanted: the erudite, companionable Tory. This diverted attention from the dangers of the real right: Bozell’s rabid theocrats.
In the wake of the Dobbs decision ending abortion as a constitutional right, in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, in the era when Fox News hosts openly cheer on Hungarian autocrat Victor Orbán, Bozell clearly had the more durable legacy. It’s hardly a historical accident that one of the hooligans arrested for participating in the assault on the Capitol building on January 6 was L. Brent Bozell IV, grandson of the late intellectual. Bozell is no longer the man who lived in Buckley’s shadow. Rather, today we are all living in Bozell’s shadow.