Andrew Breitbart, R.I.P.
Andrew Breitbart R.I.P.: One day in the summer of 2010 I woke up to a commotion outside my door. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but it turned out that my neighbor, Jodie Evans, was having a fundraiser for her friend Jerry Brown, then running (successfully) for Governor. But there were protesters. Specifically, Andrew Breitbart, who was gliding around on rollerskates with a video camera, trying to catch Brown in the act of attending the party. I thought it was a little risky of Brown to go to Evans’ house–her Code Pink organization does some wild things. But what struck me most was the mood–the way the lefties in the party and Brietbart waved to each other. It turns out they knew him. He’d gone to the Brentwood School with some of them. “Everybody tells me he’s a good guy,” one of the aggrieved Brown funders later conceded.
David Frum could not have known Breitbart. At least that’s the most charitable reason I can think of for why he picked the occasion of Breitbart’s sudden death to promote the cheap, bogus meme that Andrew had a “giddy disdain for truth and fairness” as long as a story helped his side. “Just as all is fair in a shooting war, so manipulation and deception are legitimate tools in a culture war,” writes Frum.
I’ve known right-wingers who were like that (‘See, we attack Kerry with this, and by the time he answers we’ve moved on to the next charge!’) Breitbart wasn’t one of them. Yes, he had a jaundiced view of the left, and a pugilistic–I might say, Frum-esque–view of the Middle East. But he said what he thought was true, even when that hurt his side or put his own career at risk.
Exhibit A: At the height of “Weinergate,” the moment of Breitbart’s greatest triumph, he began to have doubts about the key source, one “Dan Wolfe,” who had caught Rep. Anthony Weiner’s off-color tweet. Instead of burying these doubts, Breitbart went public with them, something that threatened to badly complicate his side’s narrative. (“Is there a real ‘Dan Wolfe’ … or has someone for months elaborately pretended to be?”) He got a lot of grief from some conservatives for this.**
Exhibit B: Breitbart was a powerful speaker, and in the early days of the Tea Party he opened for Glenn Beck at rallies. But in his view the Tea Party was a success because it was a big tent focusing on cutting the size of government, not on social issues (where Breitbart, as pretty much of a ‘South Park Republican,’ often agreed with the left). Beck’s turn to vague religiosity annoyed him, and he said it. He knew this wasn’t going to get him in good with Beck, and it didn’t.
I would go so far as to say that Breitbart had an instinctive honesty–pretty much the opposite of what Frum charges. I don’t know the ins and outs of the Shirley Sherrod mess, in which Breitbart posted a video the end of which had been lopped off before he saw it. But I guarantee you Breitbart posted it because he felt it truthfully made a legit point (and he wasn’t aware what the rest of it would show). I also know that there were plenty of stories presented by the “cohort of young conservative journalists” that he refused to publish because he wasn’t certain they’d hold up. He didn’t pretend to have the institutional standards of, say, CBS and Dan Rather. But he had a commitment to truth, independent of ideology, that (as Frum notes) many on left and right lack.
P.S.: I first met Breitbart when he showed up at a panel I was on at UCLA. He told me he was the guy who posted items for Matt Drudge, and I immediately realized he was the most powerful person in the room. Nobody could understand why I was sucking up to the crazed hippie kid in shorts. Later, during the Gray Davis recall campaign, I published a suggestive item from a reader who said he had a Oui magazine article describing a gang bang Arnold Schwarzenegger said he’d once participated in. Breitbart immediately tipped off Smoking Gun, which sent a reporter to get the Oui issue and had the article up on the web in a matter or hours. It was later pointed out to Andrew that he could have gotten all the credit if he’d waited to get the Oui issue himself. But he didn’t want to get credit so much as to get the story and get it out quickly. (He did go out of his way to give me credit, though.) It wasn’t a pro-GOP story, of course.
P.P.S.: It hasn’t sunk in yet, only in part because I’ve been too annoyed at Frum to let it. I still mentally expect to see Andrew again. He’s always around. Nobody was too unimportant for him to argue with for hours. At the height of some controversy, in which he’d be betting his entire operation on the basis of his gut, I’d be stuck in a jam on the San Diego freeway and there he’d be in his Volvo SUV, stuck too, honking and waving while taking one of his four kids home from school. He was one of those people who had so much energy he seemed ubiquitous. Maybe there was more than one!
I thought we’d all wind up working for him. I didn’t realize until today how unhappy I’d be not to.
**–Wolfe has yet to appear, as far as I know.