Andrew Breitbart, the Internet agitator who gave a powerful voice to the right-o-sphere's unrest and disenchantment with liberal institutions, invoked the spirit of the “happy warrior” to wage quixotic battles against the mainstream media and liberal bromides – often to great, but controversial, effect.
Mr. Breitbart, who died Thursday, was a protégé of webmeisters Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington. He helped found The Huffington Post before setting out to create the news site breitbart.com in 2005, followed by a series of “big” news sites, including bigjournalism.com and biggovernment.com.
Those sites provided a conservative sounding board and gave voice to media provocateurs like James O'Keefe, who essentially took down ACORN. And they made news while reporting it – specifically, in a flap involving Shirley Sherrod, then a USDA official; the Andrew Weiner “sexting” scandal; and Breitbart's campaign to prove that alleged slurs thrown at black lawmakers by tea party activists on the eve of the health-care reform vote “didn't happen.”
Taken as a whole, his short but brazen career as a journalistic pugilist dug at something deeper and uniquely American, friends said: that humor leavens, confrontation works, and free speech is worth making enemies over.
Often vilified by liberals, Breitbart maintained that he indeed “enjoyed making enemies.” His dizzying, at-times manufactured wrath on issues ranging from media hypocrisy to liberal platitudes on race was summed up by Rebecca Mead in a New Yorker profile as favoring “outrage over nuance, and comedy over comprehension.”
But his central premise – that politics is a product of culture, not the other way around – captured the imagination of a conservative America left rudderless after the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
“[O]ur culture is the most important front,” he told the Hot Air blog in 2009. “And the three most important pillars of that culture are Hollywood and pop culture, along with education and the media. Those three are absolutely controlled by the left.”
While he described himself as 85 percent conservative and 15 percent libertarian, Breitbart fought more recently against the social conservative wing of the Republican Party. He caused waves last year by promoting GOProud, a gay group, and by welcoming those he called “homocons” at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a move that some commentators hailed as a “game-changer” for making the Republican Party more appealing to young people.
Breitbart also enjoyed a flourishing career on the conservative speaking circuit, often rallying tea party crowds. His firebrand takedowns of liberal causes were usually punctuated by moments of rhetorical genius, often drawing wild cheers. “What we are starting to do is create our own media ... that is reporting what the mainstream media refuses to tell you. We are exposing the corruption of the mainstream media,” he told the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tenn., in early 2010. "I'm trying to tell you, wink, you can do it, too. You have cameras! You have ingenuity!"
In the New Yorker profile, Breitbart gave a glimpse into his pugilistic worldview, imagining taking on an outspoken liberal like the movie actor Sean Penn in a knockdown fight.
“Sort of like ‘Barfly,’ with Mickey Rourke – that’s how I envision it being with me and him,” he told Ms. Mead. “I’d hate him, I’d fight him. He’d fight me, he’d get in some punches, I’d get in some punches. We’d drink some more. At the end of the day, we’d agree to disagree. And then I’d punch him again.”
But while clearly welcoming derision from the left, Breitbart recently acknowledged in a foreword to a book that it has also taken a toll on his personal life, which he shared with his wife, Susie, and four children.
“Three years ago, I was mostly a behind-the-scenes guy who linked to stuff on a very popular website. I always wondered what it would be like to enter the public realm to fight for what I believe in,” he wrote. “I’ve lost friends, perhaps dozens. But I’ve gained hundreds, thousands – who knows? – of allies. At the end of the day, I can look at myself in the mirror, and I sleep very well at night.”
Breitbart posted a video about Ms. Sherrod, who said in it that she once dragged her feet in helping a white farmer because of his race. She was fired for that but was later offered another job after it became clear that the video was taken out of context.
In response to that controversy in July 2010, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart criticized Breitbart's decision to run a video that didn't show the full context of her speech – a criticism that was often leveled at him. "Race is already a difficult issue to discuss," Mr. Capehart wrote. "But it is made so much worse when irresponsible people go out of their way to inflame tensions or create them where none exist for the sole purpose of scoring points."
On Thursday, Twitter was flooded with both condolences and vitriol.
“America has lost her greatest general of modern day warfare,” wrote RebelPundit. “Thank god for the army he has built, he built it to last, and it will.”
Huffington Post contributor Hilary Rosen wrote: “#AndrewBreitbart RIP you big crazy rabble-rousing bundle of contradictions, loathsome actions and a giant heart. You have made your mark.”
And in a moment of cease-fire and grace with one of his rivals, the liberal Media Matters organization, the website's Ari Rabin-Havt commented: “Media Matters has a long history with Andrew Breitbart. We've disagreed more than we've found common ground, but there was never any question of Andrew's passion for and commitment to what he believed.”