I woke up this morning to about ten emails from journalist friends asking if our mutual friend, Andrew Breitbart, was really dead. “Really” was the operative word. Some meant it in the traditional sense: Is it possible for the human inferno that Breitbart resembled to have actually been extinguished at age 43, leaving his elegant wife Susie and his four beloved children behind? Several, however, meant it as in: Is Andrew really dead? Many of us didn’t know if we could trust the announcement, thinking this could be another Breitbart caper, as he always had two or three in his back pocket.
By way of greeting, I used to ask Breitbart what kind of evil he was up to.
“Most kinds,” he’d say, gamely.
So one could easily have envisioned this being the latest Breitbart media stunt: Fake your own demise, go missing for 24 hours, thus encouraging all your ideological adversaries to bleat and fume and make asses of themselves just to prove what kind of sonsofbitches you were up against. Let the record show that tasteful blogger Matt Yglesias came through like clockwork, nearly getting ahead of the Los Angeles coroner’s announcement by crowing: “Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBreitbart dead.” (Well done, Matt! Perhaps you could pass your thoughtful sentiments on to his fatherless children, since they likely don’t follow you on Twitter. Prick.)
But sadly, it was not Andrew’s last, greatest caper. Breitbart himself, of course, would’ve not only expected such aggression, but would’ve laughed at it, and even egged it along. One of his favorite pastimes was retweeting his own hate mail, which was voluminous. As a partisan warrior and a guerrilla theater aficionado – half right wing Yippie, half Andy Kaufman (his Twitter picture at the time of his death was a Jesus-sighting style imprint of his face on a piece of toast) – he made it his vocation to make people crazy. Whatever detractors say, or more likely, whatever they spray, Breitbart clearly excelled at his job.
His intensity could alternately be amusing and taxing. When he’d call you in the white-hot fever of one of the headline-garnering skirmishes that he’d inserted himself into – ACORN, Shirley Sherrod, Anthony Weiner’s schwantz pictorials – you knew that you could set the phone down, run some errands, and do some light yard work, then return without him ever realizing that you’d been gone. One of the many benefits of being friends with Andrew was that when he was on fire, which was often, there was no need to carry your share of the conversational load.
But at heart, he was in it for more than scoring points for “The Movement” as he unironically called it. As anyone who has seen his recent CPAC speech knows, Breitbart had the brains, the talent, and the animal charisma to get people to set cars on fire for him, or to run off with him to the desert where he might start his own anti-Obama doomsday cult. But while he believed in what he espoused, perhaps a little too much, he was also in it for other reasons – for action, and for amusement. He didn’t just hit scandal head-on. He enjoyed coming at it slyly. He gloried in the art of presentation. A few years back, when getting drinks with Andrew, his wife, and Fox News host Greg Gutfeld at a Washington, D.C. hotel, Breitbart showed me his Twitter mug shot.
Since he knew that I despise Twitter on principle, I thought he was deliberately sticking me in the eye. But he wasn’t. “Seriously,” he said. “Take a look. Do you notice anything different about me?” In the photo, he had newly grown facial hair. He was looking off into the middle distance in a way that did not quite resemble himself.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Did you lose weight? Get a haircut?”
“NO!!!!” he exclaimed, with some disappointment. “It’s exactly like Eric Boehlert’s Twitter picture! I’m mirroring him!” he said of his bête noire from the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, which regularly tormented Breitbart, and which in turn, was tormented by him.
There’s not a chance I could pick Eric Boehlert out of a police lineup. But there’s no way Breitbart would’ve known that. He was a man who both loved and hated with his whole heart, often getting wrapped around the axle of his own narrative. When I looked at his long-suffering wife, asking her what she made of this, she affectionately shrugged her shoulders. The universal loving-wife symbol for, “What can you do?”
I tried to calm Breitbart down several times, to no avail. A few years back, he told me the doctor said that he needed to decelerate his stress levels. Consequently, he wanted me to teach him how to fly fish. Then he thought better of it. The problem, he admitted, was, “Every time I see a tree, I just want to kick its ass.”
The last time I saw Andrew was just a few weeks ago in what turned out to be one of his last capers: dinner at a swank Chicago penthouse with former Weather Underground terrorists/Obama confidants Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. Andrew and I often disconnected on politics. Even though we were both conservatives, his mode was a little ferocious for my taste. We knew this, however. And so, it was never an issue. What was important is that he had the quality that all people I like most have: he made me laugh. Whatever his faults, he was wicked and loyal and funny – both sick and dark in the best possible way.
Our party arrived at our economy hotel, which sat next to a highway in the ghetto. It smelled of failure and water damage. Breitbart showed up late, letting me know he was on the grounds by sending a text which read: “We have to score some heroin before we head out….Wait, I think there’s someone outside my hotel room who can help.” We did not score heroin, which neither of us used, though in the hotel bar, we all doubled over as Andrew worked out his shtick during pre-game drinks as he proudly explained to us a new coinage of his – “Retrobate” – the process whereby one sexually fantasizes about aged actresses who you once had a crush on, in their younger incarnation.
Our friend, Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson, had won the Ayers dinner at an Illinois Humanities Council auction, and had brought us along. Tucker and I were a little worried that we had in our possession a human grenade in Breitbart, though if we were being honest with ourselves, that’s precisely why we brought him. With Andrew, every day was anything-can-happen day.
As it happened, Breitbart was on his best behavior. “I’m here to learn,” Andrew said facetiously. It was part of the pleasure of keeping company with him. He wasn’t just a friend, he was a co-conspirator. Once we arrived at the apartment, much to Andrew’s and Ayers’s chagrin, they got along famously. Just two guys having dinner, finding commonality, even if Andrew regarded it his hidebound duty to passive-aggressively heckle Ayers as he served us plates of hoisin ribs and farmhouse cheeses. (“This is the bomb, Bill,” Breitbart said to the former explosives-rigger.)
When Ayers asked me what I was reading right now, I told him “Moby Dick,” which actually lived up to its billing. Ayers agreed, though added, as any good academic would, “You’ve picked up the gay subtext?” Breitbart nearly choked on his tofu and quinoa. “You mean in Moby Dick?” Andrew asked. “Or at this dinner?”
Though the dinner took place on Super Bowl Sunday, Ayers and co. abruptly dismissed us before halftime, leaving our plan of attack only half realized, as we were attempting to ease into the evening like gentlemen and polite dinner guests. When we adjourned to the Drake Hotel bar to catch the end of the game and commiserate about how we got rolled, or “community organized” as Breitbart put it, I still had a list of Ayers questions that needed answering. So as I ticked through my list, I asked Breitbart to help fill in the blanks, in character, as Ayers. He eagerly obliged.
Me: “Who taught you how to make bombs? And could you still rig one up if pressed?”
Breitbart, as Ayers: “That’s interesting. I’d like for you to try this Chilean sea bass that’s been encrusted with a special Phyllo dough.”
The next morning, we rode together to the airport. As usual, I didn’t have to do much talking. Breitbart was full of stories and ideas and asides. He sang along lustfully when our cab driver blasted Tina Marie’s ‘80s hit “Lover Girl.” He told me of his super-secret guerrilla PR campaign for the upcoming documentary on him, appropriately titled, “Hating Breitbart.” He would start an anonymous website asking people to upload their hating Breitbart videos, in which they’d be encouraged to cap on him mercilessly. He would blindly commission – for high five figures – Obama propagandist Shepard Fairey to put up anti-Breitbart posters all over L.A. Then he’d call a press conference, announcing who the sponsor of all the anti-Breitbart animus was – Andrew Breitbart himself. It would’ve been a fine caper.
As we took our seats on the plane out of Chicago, Andrew was a row behind me. This I counted a blessing, thinking I could get some much-needed work-related reading done. But no such luck. Andrew asked his fellow row-mate, “Would you switch seats with him, so I can talk to him?” Andrew often seemed like he just wanted someone to talk to.
And so we did, for hours. We talked about his kids, whom he was crazy about. And we talked about one of his favorite films, Grandma’s Boy, about a slacker video game tester forced to move in with his grandmother. We talked about his sterling academic credentials (he pulled a solid 2.0 at Tulane, the New Orleans party school), and at his good fortune in finding his way in the world, even if finances were sometimes tight.
We talked about aging, as two middle-aged guys who get into the Bloody Mary cart at 11 in the morning sometimes will. I told Andrew that his good friend, Five for Fighting’s John Ondrasik, had a hit song called “100 Years” – about aging – that never ceases to freak me out. The protagonist of the song describes the different ages of his life – 15, 33, 45, and so on – that tick by in a blink. It doesn’t help, I told Andrew, that I was 33 when the song seemingly came out yesterday, but that I am closer to 45 now, thus illustrating Ondrasik’s point.
In a very rare spell of silence, Breitbart stewed for several minutes. Then, he wistfully replied, “Don’t worry, man. It’s something that bothers me, too. But I have it all figured out. We all need to go to work together every day from 9 am to 3 pm, whether we need to or not. In a classroom. We’ll even sit at those peninsula-shaped desks, with our pencil sharpeners and Elmer’s glue. And we’ll do it for nine months out of every year.”
“Why on earth?” I asked, puzzled.
“Because,” he said. “When we were in school, that was the last time we watched the clock, and wanted it to hurry up. The last time it took too long to get to the next thing.”
As we parted company at baggage claim, Andrew was still talking (as always) about how we needed to meet for drinks, about his next caper, about a proposed Grandma’s Boy viewing party. Neither of us knew that the time we were just speaking of was in shorter supply for him than for the rest of us. Makes me wish we were sitting at our peninsula-desks, stalling the clock.
Several years ago, when Breitbart was in the middle of one skirmish or another – I don’t even remember which one – I told him that I didn’t know whether I should encourage him, but that he made me laugh, as always. I asked him when someone finally shot him, “Can I read a poem at your memorial service? ”
“I think I should stop,” he admitted of his latest caper. “But it’s so fun and the hate mail is something to behold….And of course you can read my favorite poem, William Carlos Williams’s ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ at my wake.” Well my friend, you mercifully didn’t get shot. But here you go anyway:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
I’ve never had any idea what the hell that poem means. And I suspect that neither Breitbart, nor William Carlos Williams, had a clue either. But it doesn’t matter. As Andrew held, sometimes absurdity is worth it for its own sake. And as he once wrote to me, “I hope people see that I’m dead serious about what I’m dead serious about, and besides that, it’s all about a good laugh.”