To the memory of Andrew Breitbart
It’s an unnatural act, to write an obituary for a 43-year-old man. But Andrew Breitbart, my old friend who died suddenly on March 1, was a master of the unexpected, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. He was very, very good at catching people off guard.
The first time I met Andrew Breitbart, he bounded up to me at a party to thank me for my review of his first book, Hollywood Interrupted, which I didn’t like much. The review appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and I had written, essentially, that although it was fun and fearless and a snappy read, it was also a little over the top.
Not that Andrew cared. He grabbed me by the shoulder, his big round face erupting into a smile, his long colonial-era-style curls shaking merrily, and boomed, “Hey! Thank you for that review!”
And then he added, “I think.”
Because Andrew himself was fun and fearless and over the top, he didn’t see these things as criticism. He took them as compliments. To Andrew, anything worth doing was worth doing loudly, publicly, and with as much laughter as possible. That’s why his most famous moves — broadcasting undercover video of ACORN officials offering advice to pimps and prostitutes; disseminating semi-nude photographs tweeted by former New York representative Anthony Weiner — always, in addition to scoring direct hits, seemed kind of funny, too.
That’s also why his eponymous websites — the infamous “Bigs” — were so brash and unapologetic. Andrew thought we all needed to shake it up a little, to make some more noise, to rally the troops. For too long, he felt, conservatives had played nicely and behaved, only to be ridiculed and, worse, ignored by the “mainstream media.” They’re keeping us locked up, he’d say, like zoo animals. Andrew made it his mission to rattle the cage.
I can remember Andrew’s constant refrain when he and I argued — long and hard — about the Iraq War and its merits (I was unconvinced there were any; Andrew was a full-on supporter): Don’t let them win the narrative!
The narrative. That’s what kept Andrew up late and fighting. He was the first one on our side to understand not just how the left-wing establishment sets the table for every discussion, but how crucial it is for our side to disrupt it. Andrew used that word a lot — “narrative” — and it always irritated me, and I always told him it irritated me, and he always shouted and laughed and argued that I was a soft old RINO plutocrat who didn’t mind my protected — but second-tier — ranking in the intellectual and political classes. And I’d tell him that he was an overheated Web junkie who was fighting too many daily Twitter wars to really make any meaningful change.
We were both wrong.
Well, I was wrong, that’s for sure. Because the prevailing narrative — see what your death has done to me, Andrew? I’m using that awful word! — is written by the Left, and it includes such enduring shibboleths as: Democrats are generous; left-wing community organizations are just trying to help people; liberals are open minded; and conservatives can’t be hip.
There are definite advantages to controlling the narrative, as Andrew knew. We’ve all been in one of those rabbit-hole arguments with a liberal — full of trap doors and false fronts and endless tributaries and diversions. Start out talking about federal entitlements, and you end up arguing about Senator Trent Lott’s long-ago comments about Senator Strom Thurmond. And gay marriage. Lay out the case for the Iraq War, or the PATRIOT Act, and you’ll be swamped with Halliburton, sandbagged by Big Oil, and end up somehow talking about Joseph McCarthy and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And gay marriage. (Gay marriage is a big one.)
I’ve always resisted this kind of analysis — They’re all against us! — because, frankly, our side whines too much. We complain about the unfairness of it all, about CNN and the New York Times and the history faculty at Yale, way, way too much. I’ve always found that kind of talk about narratives and messages to be just a high-class way of sitting around, indulging in impotent bitching.
It took me a long time to realize that when Andrew talked this way, he wasn’t complaining. He wasn’t whining. He was inspired. The airtight cocoon of the left-wing intelligentsia wasn’t something that Andrew wanted to wish away. It was something he woke up every morning raring to destroy.
Don’t like who’s giving you your news? Build a better news organization. Don’t like the fact that conservatives are overwhelmingly the targets of media sting operations? Sting some liberals yourself. We’ve all talked, endlessly, since Andrew’s death, about his effect on the Left and the media, but what about his more crucial effect on our side? Andrew taught us to stop whining. Andrew taught us to build it ourselves.
And he did it all from his beloved Los Angeles, driving his kids to school and back, listening to his favorite 1980s pop music, nine conversations going at once. He was a true son of the West Coast — apart from the East Coast, establishment way of doing business. On the East Coast, you try to control what’s printed in the newspaper. On the West Coast, you figure out a way to put the newspaper out of business. On the East Coast, you try to shape news coverage of a certain story. On the West Coast, you become the story itself. On the East Coast, you wear a coat and tie. On the West Coast, you shamble around, as Andrew often did, in shorts and a misbuttoned shirt. On the East Coast, this looks like work. On the West Coast, it looks like fun.
Andrew had fun. He was a joyful and infectious laugher — it was impossible not to laugh along with him — and a gleeful teller of filthy jokes. A conversation with Andrew was like turning on the radio and setting it to “Scan”: a little agitprop, some news, suddenly a burst of song, some crude humor, and a huge dose of talk-radio outrage. In other words, he was a complete entertainment package, barely contained in his untucked shirt and unruly hair.
Once, out of town and running late for a meeting, he turned on the radio of his rental car and discovered that a certain satellite radio station was playing a tribute to the pop music of the mid-1980s — Andrew’s sweet spot for favorite tunes. The right thing to do, of course, was to hurry along to the meeting and try to catch up to the radio later. What Andrew did, though, was this: He turned up the radio and called his wife and they stayed on the phone for an hour, singing their favorite songs together.
Which is all you really need to know about Andrew. He was an adoring husband. A smitten father. A lover of bad music. And to our side, he was the one who told us to stop whining and start building.