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What Andrew Breitbart meant to politics

at 11:27 AM ET, 03/01/2012

Andrew Breitbart loved political combat.

Based in the liberal enclave of Los Angeles, Breitbart viewed himself as a one-man conservative gang and he took to the task of delivering rhetorical body blows — primarily via the web but also through television appearances — with a gusto rarely seen even in these hyperpartisan times.

“There was no stopping Andrew Breitbart from fighting the good fight with every fiber of his soul,” said Michigan Rep. Thad McCotter

He was mischievous — rarely without a sly smile on his face. He was controversial. He was loved by conservatives and loathed by Democrats. And now, at 43, Andrew Breitbart, conservative journalist and provocateur, is dead.

His untimely passing raises a fascinating question about our modern world: What did Andrew Breitbart mean to politics?

That may be among the most loaded questions in the political world due to Breitbart’s divisive — and proud of it — personality. But to truly understand what Breitbart meant to politics, you need to understand where he came from.

Breitbart first came to prominence in the political world as an editor for the Drudge Report, a political tipsheet frequented daily — and often much more often than that — by journalists, cable television bookers and politicians. Matt Drudge, the founder of the Drudge Report, posted a note to his readers on the site Thursday; “In the first decade of the Drudge Report Andrew Breitbart was a constant source of energy, passion and commitment,” wrote Drudge. “We shared a love of headlines, a love of the news, an excitement about what’s happening.”

Breitbart then began working with conservative-turned-liberal activist/journalist Arianna Huffington who was building a new news site that Breitbart helped to found. Though he left HuffPo in its earliest stages, Huffington had nothing but praise for Breitbart in an email to The Fix.

“All I can think is what Andrew meant to me as a friend, starting from when we worked together — his passion, his exuberance, his fearlessness,” said Huffington. “And above all, what I’m thinking of at the moment is his amazing wife Susie and their four beautiful young children.”

Largely on the notoriety of his involvement with the Drudge Report — and with a major boost from a regular series of links from the site — Breitbart launched a series of websites of his own beginning in 2005.

First came Breitbart.tv, a news aggregation site. But Breitbart soon added other sites — Big Hollywood , Big Government and Big Journalism being the three most notable — which he worked the preferred landing place for conservative (and controversial) content.

His first big break came in 2009 when he posted an undercover video of a man — the now famous/infamous James O’Keefe — posing as a pimp and seeking legal advice for his “business” from ACORN, a community organization that has long been the scourge of conservatives.

The incident caused considerable embarrassment to ACORN and propelled Breitbart and O’Keefe into the national spotlight. Democrats decried the video as unfairly edited to paint ACORN in a negative light. Republicans seized on it as evidence of the corruption within the organization.

But, Breitbart was far from done. In 2010, he posted a video of a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee named Shirley Sherrod seemingly expressing an unwillingness to help a white farmer who had sought assistance. In the firestorm her comments created, Sherrod was fired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

It later was revealed, however, that Sherrod’s comments were heavily edited and, in fact, she had been telling the story of the white farmer as an example of how she had overcome her initial doubts and worked to help the farmer. The Sherrod story was in the end, a parable of racial tolerance not intolerance. Earlier this year, Sherrod sued Breitbart for defamation of character.

Undeterred — as he always was — Breitbart continued his assault on Democrats and the liberal-minded media that he believed protected many of them from scrutiny.

His biggest coup came in 2011 when he was at the center of a controversy regarding lewd pictures that New York Rep. Anthony Weiner had taken of himself and sent to a number of women who were not his wife.

Weiner initially denied that the photos — of his underwear-clad groin — were of him but Breitbart was dogged. On NBC’s “Today” show, he insisted he had more x-rated pictures of Weiner and threatened to release them if the New York Democrat attempted to get back at him for breaking the story.

And, in a final indignity to Weiner, Breitbart hijacked the Democrat’s press conference to demand that Weiner tell the whole truth. It was a surreal moment — the sort of truth is stranger than fiction stuff that makes politics fun to cover. And it was vintage Breitbart.

The legacy that Breitbart leaves on the political world is a mixed one. He was, without question a pioneering force in the rapidly-growing field aggregation of political news — both during his time at Drudge and HuffPo.

(One former Huffington Post employee related a story about a 2007 conference call Breitbart did — at Huffington's behest — with the staff to school them on the best methods for aggregation. “He really talked our ears off on the call and wouldn’t stop talking about this ‘monkey boy’ that he had made popular after finding a small article on it in the Indian papers and putting it on Drudge,” said the employee.)

And, Breitbart also understood before many others that the world of politics — and the way in which it was covered — was rapidly transforming itself into a form of entertainment for the public. The fusion of celebrity and politician — best epitomized by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin — was something that Breitbart (and Drudge) grasped longed before much of the mainstream media.

At the same time, Breitbart’s methods walked a fine line between envelope pushing and downright scurrilous at times. The Sherrod incident raised questions about whether Breitbart was a journalist with a conservative bent or simply someone willing to do whatever it took to bring down Democrats.

For those who preached the need to elevate the public dialogue about politics, Breitbart was enemy number one -- a symbol of the small and petty nature of the world in which politicians were forced to reside.

Andrew Breitbart was complicated. He clearly saw around the corner of where journalism was headed but the ways in which he used that insight rightfully raise questions about his ultimate motives.

His legacy in politics is similarly complicated. If you loved him, you really loved him. And if you hated him, well you really hated him. Having met Breitbart on a few occasions and corresponded with him infrequently over the years, I can’t imagine he would want it any other way.

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