Opinion writer March 5, 2012

It is not nice to speak ill of the dead, my mother once told me. But it is okay, I think, to speak ill of those who praise the dead when the deceased was best known for sliming a well-intentioned and wholly commendable public servant or for exposing a politician who had already exposed himself. I am referring to Andrew Breitbart, whose passing was noted and mourned throughout the conservative firmament. His eulogies tell us more about the movement than they do about him.

Almost immediately, conservative commentators let out a wail signifying the passing of one of their own. True, Breitbart was shockingly young, a mere 43, but then in those few years he had done much — a good deal of it revolting and some of it unethical or sloppy. He claimed enormous credit for revealing that Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was a flasher, but the so-called crime had no victim and was not in the least way political. Breitbart had ousted a liberal from Congress not in an election or in an exchange of ideas but because he caught him with his pants down. Conservatives cheered. They have, as we all know, considerable trouble with any kind of sex.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

Earlier, Breitbart reported that Shirley Sherrod, an Agriculture Department official of epic obscurity, had confessed to discriminating as an African American against whites. Breitbart had a tape of her remarks and he put it out there to a grateful nation. But the full tape — not the snippet he offered to the ravenous Internet — showed nothing of the sort. It was just the opposite, in fact. Breitbart had failed to check it out, he claimed. Why?

Every journalist knows the expression “too good to be true.” But for Breitbart, the Sherrod story was too good not to be true. It had to be true. She was exactly the kind of person that a left-wing, socialist, Muslim president like Barack Hussein Obama would like to appoint to high federal office. Call Breitbart’s tactics what you will, it wasn’t journalism.

James Q. Wilson also died last week. He was a scholar and a damned fine writer and also a conservative. He was mostly famous for writing, along with George L. Kelling, an Atlantic Monthly article that outlined the “Broken Windows” theory of criminology. Some police officials took note, among them William Bratton, later to become New York City police chief under Rudolph Giuliani. Bratton applied Wilson’s theories about tending to the little things — fare-jumpers in the subways, for instance — and crime plummeted.

Wilson was my kind of conservative. He was ruled not by dogma or ideology but by common sense. He was of the same school of intellectuals who once wrote for Commentary or the Public Interest and National Review. These journals twitched with new ideas and they were alive to challenging liberal orthodoxy, a necessary, even moral, obligation at times. The writers who created and wrote for these publications would never have abided rigid pledges about not raising taxes or wondering about evolution or rejecting global warming for ideological — not scientific — reasons. The nomination of Sarah Palin would probably have appalled William F. Buckley, had he not died some months before.

The distance from Wilson to Breitbart is one way to measure how deeply lost the American conservative movement has become. The recent lineup of earnest fools who have proclaimed their readiness to rule the nation and the world was — and remains — a depressing and frightening sight. Imagine President Perry or Santorum or Bachmann or Palin or Gingrich. This horror is partially the product of a Republican intellectual and political establishment that has only one value: to win. The party’s hierarchy patronizes its own base. It will use its energy and grievances to regain power so that a select few can lead. It offers nothing by way of rebuke to religious figures, such as the astoundingly bigoted Franklin Graham, who dress their prejudice in the glad rags of piety.

Peggy Noonan writes that Andrew Breitbart had many charming qualities. I take her at her word. But it’s not a huge leap from Breitbart’s libel of Sherrod to Rush Limbaugh’s sliming of Sandra Fluke — an older African American, a young woman: caricatures both. A public man should be judged by his public acts. And in Breitbart I can find nothing of value. He thought politics was like war. Wilson thought it was about ideas. That’s why you can only read about Breitbart. You can, however, always read Wilson.

cohenr@washpost.com