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The Rise and Fall of the L. Brent Bozells

How four generations of one American family are a synecdoche of the decline of the conservative movement.

Kris Connor/Getty Images
Brent Bozell, founder and president of the Media Research Center, speaks during a 2016 panel discussion.

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.

Brent became a contributor to Buckley’s National Review with the first issue in 1955—the one that famously stood athwart history. He despaired that Dwight Eisenhower was “a liberal president” and predicted gloomily that the Soviets would win the Cold War. To Brent’s credit, he dissented from a National Review editorial (“Why the South Must Prevail”) that defended white Southerners’ denial of the vote to African Americans on the grounds that Caucasians were “the advanced race.” Increasingly, though, Brent’s disagreement with the National Review line was that it wasn’t conservative enough. In one piece, he defended the John Birch Society, which Buckley had made a point of expelling from his movement.

Brent ghostwrote Barry Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative, giving wide play to his Cold War pessimism when the book became a surprise bestseller in 1960. By now, Brent had blossomed into a full-fledged reactionary. He moved to Spain and became an apologist for Franco’s fascist regime. Then he moved back and lost a Maryland congressional primary race to the liberal Republican Charles Mathias. After that, he moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains and devoted most of the rest of his life to attacking Vatican II.

In L. Brent Bozell III (1955-present), we start to see what IQ experts delicately call “regression to the mean.” If Leo’s preoccupation was to build a successful business and Brent’s was to build an intellectual foundation for movement conservatism, Brent III’s was to build a series of organizations to perpetuate that movement.

The most significant of these was probably the National Conservative Political Action Committee, or NCPAC, a direct-mail fundraising shop founded by Terry Dolan, Roger Stone, and Charles Black that was instrumental in defeating four prominent liberal senators in 1980: George McGovern, Birch Bayh, John Culver, and Frank Church. NCPAC Chairman Dolan, a closeted young gay man who would die of complications from AIDS in 1986, was a breathtaking hypocrite. He once put out a fundraising letter that said, “Our nation’s moral fiber is being weakened by the growing homosexual movement and the fanatical E.R.A. pushers (many of whom publicly brag they are lesbians).” The organization’s philosophy, Dolan explained, was that “the shriller you are, the better it is to raise money.”

Brent III joined the group after graduating from the University of Dallas in 1977 and, with Dolan’s passing, succeeded him as NCPAC chairman. But Brent III soon tangled with the group’s board, so he left to start a group called the Media Research Center, or MRC, which was dedicated to undermining the credibility of straight news organizations by denouncing them as left-wing propagandists. Although it operated in profound bad faith while masquerading as a righteous watchdog of objectivity, the group was wildly successful, spawning multiple offshoots.

Brent III also became a TV commentator and columnist. His reputation as a writer and thinker was not great, even among movement conservatives, and it took a serious hit in 2014 when three unidentified former MRC employees revealed that the son of the man who ghostwrote The Conscience of A Conservative needed a ghostwriter of his own. Brent III’s columns, these former employees told journalist Jim Romenesko, were written almost entirely by MRC’s media analysis director, a man named Tim Graham.

When asked about this, Brent III’s syndicator didn’t exactly deny it. “I remember years ago when Brent suggested that he share the byline for his column with Tim,” this person said, “and I said it would be better for us to promote a single individual. We have decided, however, that since Tim works so closely with Brent on the column, we have changed it to a joint byline.” For a while, Brent III and Tim Graham did share the byline, as they’d done all along on Brent III’s books. But more recent Brent III columns carry only Brent III’s byline.

As a commentator, Brent III has had more than his share of gaffes. The worst of these occurred during a 2011 appearance on Hannity. Responding to some crack by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that Newt Gingrich “looks like a car bomber,” Brent III said  “How long do you think Sean Hannity’s show would last if four times in one sentence, he made a comment about, say, the president of the United States, and said that he looked like a skinny, ghetto crackhead?” This was, of course, Brent III’s winking way to utter a racist slur about Barack Obama, leaving himself a hair’s breadth of deniability by posing it as a hypothetical. But then he made the racist slur explicit by adding, “Which, by the way, you might want to say that Barack Obama does.”*

Regarding Donald Trump, Brent III performed a Lindsey Graham–style backflip. During the 2016 primaries, Brent III denounced Trump as “the greatest charlatan of them all,” bravely enduring what Politico’s Tim Alberta called “a serious hit” to MRC’s fundraising (which, Alberta wrote, was already judged by allies as “an outdated operation”). To get well after Trump won, he discarded his brave stance and denounced the media’s “hatred” of Trump. By August 2020, Brent III was chugging the Kool-Aid, saying the left was plotting to “steal this election” and adding, “If they get away with that, what happens? Democracy is finished because they usher in totalitarianism.”

But Brent III drew the line at condoning the January 6 riot. After stating that he agreed with the mob that the election was stolen, he said, “You can never countenance police being attacked. You cannot countenance our national Capitol being breached like this. I think it is absolutely wrong.”

Then came Zeeker (1981-present).

We don’t know a lot about Zeeker; even his occupation is a mystery. We know that in the Senate chamber he fiddled with a C-SPAN camera so that it pointed downward and couldn’t record what the rioters were doing. We know that he lives in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. We know that he coached girls’ basketball, not at Hershey Christian Academy, but at a school in Hershey called St. Joan of Arc. (This was confirmed by the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg.) We think, but don’t know for certain, that one or more of Zeeker’s children attend Hershey Christian Academy.

With that, the trail goes cold because nobody’s talking, not even Zeeker’s lawyer. But the floundering conservative movement, as it bids adieu to Rush Limbaugh, seems also to be seeing its last of the Bozell dynasty. Good night, sweet princes. It was fun while it lasted.

An earlier version of this column misstated the length of time since the founding of National Review. The column also misattributed a hypothetical question posed on Hannity