Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing provocateur and online mogul, died last night at the age of 43. Just this past fall, Maxim spent time with Mr. Breitbart, discussing his life, the state of American politics, the presidential election. Whether or not you agreed with his politics, Mr. Breitbart was undeniably charismatic, a guys' guy who you'd want to grab a beer with and argue the news of the day. He leaves behind four children and his wife, Susie.
Photo: Andrew Burton / Getty Images | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012
Whether you think Andrew Breitbart is a patriot or a blowhard depends on whether your politics lean right or left. Either way, he’s the Internet magnate who exposed Rep. Anthony Weiner as a perv and will spend the next 12 months marshaling a Tea Party army he hopes will knock Barack Obama out of the White House.
It’s 6:40 a.m. on a Thursday in August, and Andrew Breitbart is uncharacteristically at a loss for words. The right- wing provocateur, who normally speaks in 800-word paragraphs, is sitting in a Starbucks in West L.A., sucking down a venti iced soy latte, trying to figure out what to say on The Dennis Miller Show, which he’s guest-
hosting. The show starts in 20 minutes.
Looking like the Dude’s younger brother —he’s wearing loose-fitting jeans and Converse slip-ons, his hair a tangle of graying curls—Breitbart sounds dreamy, rhapsodic. In other words, nothing like a guy who’s routinely called a “cock-sucking faggot” (his words) on Twitter by his legions of left-wing haters and who just as routinely posts his own seething rants against what he sees as the liberal bias of the mainstream media.
Even those who don’t watch Fox News (where Breitbart is a regular) or haven’t read his books or aren’t aware of his growing empire of conservative Web sites know who Andrew Breitbart is by now, thanks to a little scandal involving Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner and his gray-undies-encased package. It was Breitbart who broke the story and proved that Weiner’s Twitter account had not been hacked, as the congressman claimed—an act that ultimately led to Weiner’s resignation.
“It was the sexiest scandal ever!” Breitbart says. “Me and a congressman’s genitals. Just the two of us out there on the mean streets of New York together. And who won? I did.”
In Breitbart’s world, there’s winning and losing, and lately he’s been very much winning. The biggest victory lap was Weiner’s press conference, which Breitbart essentially hijacked, leaping to the podium and lambasting the media for about 15 minutes. He also demanded an apology from Weiner for blaming him for the scandal—and got it.
A decade ago it would have been unfathomable for a self-styled muckraker working out of his proverbial basement to wield the influence Breitbart does. But thanks to the rise of the Web and social media, and the way they have provided the fringe with a platform, Breitbart has emerged as one of the right’s loudest voices. That voice is about to get even louder as the 2012 election heats up and he prepares to harpoon his next “Moby Dick”—as he fondly refers to WeinerGate.
But while the controversy thrust the 42-year-old Breitbart, who is married with four kids, into the right-wing pantheon of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, it was a draining few weeks. And knowing that his life would soon be turned upside down again with the 2012 election, he decided to take a “mental vacation.”
On the drive over to the studio, he checks his e-mail on his iPhone while swerving his Range Rover in and out of traffic. Seconds before going on the radio, he’s feverishly scanning the Internet for news hooks.
“Ooh!” he says. “The U.S. is calling for Syria’s Assad to step down!” Vacation over. Ironically, the road to becoming a warrior for the right began in the very liberal enclave of Brentwood, a chichi neighborhood in Los Angeles where Breitbart grew up. His father was a restaurateur and, later, a restaurant industry lobbyist, his mother a bank exec. And though both leaned right, Breitbart describes himself as “a pretty PC dude back then.” He delivered pizza, rooted for the Dodgers, and scoured record stores for obscure new-wave albums.
Things only got truly crazy at Tulane University, in New Orleans, where Breitbart enrolled as an undergrad. “I was waking up at 4 p.m., going, ‘Ooh, I get an hour of sunlight. I’m like an Anne Rice character!’ ” he says of his drug- and booze-fueled days. “I just had so many twisted moments.”
Back in L.A., Breitbart’s life took on more shape with the influence of two people: Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington. Breitbart helped edit the right-leaning Drudge Report for about 15 years and then, in 2005, helped “build,” as he likes to say, the left-leaning Huffington Post. (Huffington has contested these characterizations in the past.)
Breitbart had actually worked for Huffington in the late 1990s and credits her with turning him into the type of guy who fires off dozens of heated tweets a day to his 55,000 followers and looks wide awake at dawn even though he just got back from a black-conservatives event in St. Louis and tomorrow is flying to Idaho for a Tea Party summit.
It was the decision to part ways with Huffington that began his metamorphosis into someone Keith Olbermann has called a “comically dishonest propagandist.”
In 2005, with the launch of Breitbart.com, a news aggregator, followed by his editorial-oriented “Big” sites—Big Government, Big Journalism, Big Hollywood, etc.—Breitbart finally had his own platform to “counter the mainstream media’s narrative.”
It wasn’t long before he was making waves. In 2009 he ran a series of gotcha videos made by a young conservative activist named James O’Keefe. The videos appeared to show O’Keefe and partner Hannah Giles—disguised as a pimp and a prostitute—receiving advice from the community-organizing group ACORN on how to set up a brothel and evade taxes. The clips helped lead to the demise of the 40-year-old group.
Then there was the Shirley Sherrod incident, which blew up when Breitbart posted a tape of Sherrod, an African-American official at the Department of Agriculture, making what seemed to be racist remarks. The clip led a jittery Obama administration to fire Sherrod, later causing embarrassment for Breitbart when it was revealed that the segment of the tape he’d run was taken out of context. (Breitbart insists context was included in an accompanying article.) But while the incident fueled Breitbart’s critics, his fans prefer to focus on the big picture.
“People say, ‘Oh, there’s this new revolution in conservative media with these blogs,’ ” says Tim Groseclose, the author of Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts
the American Mind. “But Andrew is going out and trying to find stories that no one else even knows about, such as ACORN.”
Breitbart’s beef isn’t so much that the established media tends to veer left; it’s that he says it’s not honest about doing so.
“The people who are allegedly neutral, allegedly objective, when they’re accused of being biased, they say, ‘Who, us? We’re just stenographers!’ Well, that’s a big lie.”
Eric Boehlert of the left-wing watchdog group Media Matters scoffs at this claim.
“If the liberal media was so liberal, Breitbart would be crucified in the press,” Boehlert says. “But he’s gotten star treatment because he says outrageous things, and most people don’t fact-check it.”
Secondly, Boehlert notes, “Just go back and look at the run-up to the Iraq war. People from The New York Times, ABC News, and lots of others acknowledged that they fucked that story up. They didn’t fuck it up by being too liberal—they fucked it up by rolling over for a Republican president.”
It’s an hour into The Dennis Miller Show, and Breitbart is clearly warmed up; the mental fog from earlier in the morning has lifted.
“Let’s hear a little clip from Al Sharpton,” Breitbart chirps. He then cues up the much-ridiculed gibberish—“But resist, we much. We must. And we will much…”—that Sharpton had spouted recently on MSNBC.
“That’s NBC News!” Breitbart cackles.
Speaking to his on-air guest Dana Loesch, the editor of Big Journalism and a Tea Party die-hard, he says, “Do you, Dana, want to wage war against Al Sharpton and take him off the air, or would you rather him be there as a totem of what the left stands for, and real journalism is, compared to Fox News?”
Before she can answer, he jumps in: “I love MSNBC! I love HuffPo! I don’t understand how people don’t watch them.”
Another subject that gets Breitbart wound up is Obama, whom Breitbart calls “the first purely, culturally Marxist PC president” as well as “the divider in chief.”
“His entire worldview is built around class warfare. The rhetoric he uses of the haves versus the have-nots…At every single union confrontation I’ve had, people are going,
‘You’re just a white guy. You’re not happy because we the brown people are going to take over this country.’ I’m like, What?...But that type of class warfare is what they’re indoctrinated in, and I resent it to my core.”
As for the coming election?
“Anyone can beat Obama a year from now,” Breitbart says matter-of-factly. “There’s no rational business that wouldn’t fire the person, the CEO, who’s wasting money and has nothing to show for it.”
But when it comes to the candidate he’s supporting, he pulls the “mental vacation” card, saying he’s only watched one Republican debate. Knowing Breitbart, there’s
no way he’s not paying attention. It’s more likely that, having become a player in the Republican party, he’s starting to, if not act, then sound more like a politician.
“I think the Tea Party has the ability to shape the debate,” he says. (Elsewhere he has said his “dream ticket” is Michele Bachmann and Allen West, and he swoons when talking about Sarah Palin.)
“Look,” he says, referring to members of the Tea Party, “they’re all people I’m happy are in the reality show called The Presidential Race, and I’m just starting to get my popcorn and my Diet Coke.”
And then he’s distracted by something on his iPhone. A tipster has sent an e-mail saying that Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg has just said in a speech, “We’ve got to eliminate the rich.” (It will later be pointed out by Media Matters that Lautenberg is actually saying “waste.”)
Breitbart’s smiling devilishly. “One of the first things I did when I worked in L.A. [after college] was drive Senator Lautenberg around. Back then I thought I was a liberal Democrat.
“He’s such a nice guy,” Breitbart says, laughing. “But I’m about to nail him.”