It was always funny to many of his friends that Andrew Breitbart, after he became famous, was probably most famous for being a 100 percent polarizing political lightning rod. The reason that was funny was two-fold: He didn't actually have strong philosophical/policy beliefs - at all - and he was always perfectly comfortable and perfectly welcome in ideologically and culturally diverse settings. Like my L.A. backyard (pictured), dozens of times.
That doesn't mean the guy stumbled accidentally into politcal conflict. He lived for it. He was genuinely, convincingly, overwhelmingly outraged at the workaday biases of liberal media, academia, and entertainment, and always positioned himself smack dab in the center of it. He'd be in the middle of some hilarious story about trying to do unspeakable things at some Irvine Meadows concert in the 1980s, and then if the conversation got steered toward the media, his eyes would narrow and redden, his face would go purplish, and Breitbart-Hulk would take over. Here's how I described one such face-reddening moment in a 2004 Reason column:
"Every day I wake up in the battle about media bias," he says. "The best analogy I can give to you is this: Have you ever gone to like the Santa Monica Pier, and seen one of those holograms on the wall, and you're supposed to stare at it for a while, and there's supposed to be, like, a magical castle in it? Well you look and you look and you can't see that castle and you can't see that castle, but eventually your eyes focus in such a way that the castle comes up. And then you can't not see the castle. That's how media bias comes to you from the conservative angle." […]
"Because you ignored us," Breitbart says, "because you ignored Rush and Drudge and God knows who else, we decided to go out and create our media. And I think that what we're doing is building up something that may be bigger and better."
Before talking about that "go out and create our media" part, which will be Breitbart's true legacy, I would like to stress here that Andrew's broader point about media bias, while always hyperbolic, was also based on something broadly true. Here, let's look at something I read this very morning in The New Yorker, by Hendrik Hertzberg. In a piece that listed first among the Republican base's "basest biases" its "fierce hatred of the mainstream media," Hertzberg, the lead political commentator in the country's most journalistically respected magazine, describes the GOP core like this:
an excitable, overlapping assortment of Fox News friends, Limbaugh dittoheads, Tea Party animals, war whoopers, nativists, Christianist fundamentalists, à la carte Catholics (anti-abortion, yes; anti-torture, no), anti-Rooseveltians (Franklin and Theodore), global-warming denialists, post-Confederate white Southrons, creationists, birthers, market idolaters, Europe demonizers, and gun fetishists
I was a "media columnist" when I met Andrew, and I will probably always disagree with the conservative/Breitbartian conflation of "bias" with "agenda," but he certainly sensitized me more to the friction that non-liberals feel when swimming against the current of Acceptable Opinion. For which he deserves a posthumous thanks.
But as Nick Gillespie mentioned this morning, Breitbart's real accomplishment was his innovative, hyper-kinetic 21st-century media creation. Who else could say they helped make both The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post what they are today? Operating with budgets the fraction of daily newspapers you will never hear of, Breitbart consistently and gleefully produced about the highest impact-per-dollar political muckraking in the mediasphere.
The circus could make even his friends wince sometimes (especially following his insanely combative and hilarious Twitter feed), but it was almost always at least interesting and frequently funny. I understand that some of his antagonists are pouring acid on his grave today, or at least bitching about the lack of James O'Keefe forensics in various obituary notices, and all I can say is: 1) He (and I, for that matter) wouldn't have it any other way, and 2) The next Breitbart-hater to match his entrepreneurial esprit-de-corps will be the first. To get a sense of that, and the man himself, I recommend this 2010 Slate profile by Christopher Beam.
I don't want to end on that inevitably polarizing note, because that's not what I valued in Andrew Breitbart. He was a funny, warm, gregarious person who typically peaked at about 2 AM near a large outdoor fire. A totally doting husband and father of four, and typing those words is kind of devastating me right now. RIP, Andrew, and my heart goes out to Susie and the kids.
Some Reason links:
* Breitbart Confidential: His First Concert, His Baseball Obsession, His Elvis-Like Moment, & More
* Liberal in Bed, Conservative in the Head: Sophie B. Hawkins, Breitbart, & Steele, @ Big Gay Party
And here's me talking with Breitbart right after the November 2008 elections: