I met Andrew Breitbart back in the late ’90s. I had just graduated from college and started working at The Weekly Standard, and my first grown-up trip was to fly out to Los Angeles for a long weekend. I had a touristy list of things to see and do—get a drink at the Brown Derby, play basketball at the court next to Muscle Beach in Venice. High on this list was meeting Arianna Huffington, still a conservative in those days.
We had, technically, met a month or so before, at which time she politely said that if I were ever in Los Angeles I should drop her a line. So the day I touched down, I rang her and, to my slack-jawed amazement, she invited me over to her house.
My afternoon at the Huffington manse in Brentwood was, at least for my 22-year-old self, full of wonderment. She poured me a glass of wine in her living room. She introduced me to her very sweet, very Greek mother. And then she took me upstairs to her library toward the back of the house. Tucked away in a little room off the library’s second floor—it struck me at the time as being like a secret passage in the Bat Cave—was her guy Friday, Andrew Breit-bart.
Arianna introduced us, and I liked him immediately. He was gregarious and smart. We were interested in a lot of the same things—politics, movies, and technology. We started gabbing about BBSes and Usenet groups and the Clinton scandals. The next day we met for lunch and sat together for close to three hours. I wanted to know all about his glamorous life in L.A.; he wanted to know about life in Washington. I’ll never forget how animated he got when he told me how lucky I was to live in a town where not only could you talk politics with just about anyone, but you could even talk conservative politics with most people. “I’m starved for that out here,” he said, “because everyone is liberal. There is, literally, no one I can talk with about this stuff.”
Breit-bart had a peripatetic mind—lots of ideas, most of them big, some of them very, very good. (I remember one conversation with him, about 10 years ago, where he spun out, at length, a concept for a microblogging service that I told him was crazy. In nearly every particular, he conceived of Twitter four years before Twitter was invented.)
Even as Arianna was transitioning away from conservatism, Breit-bart began to pilot his own ship. He became Matt Drudge’s wingman at the Drudge Report and wrote a terrific book (with Mark Ebner) on celebrity corruption, Hollywood, Interrupted. He helped Arianna launch the Huffington Post. And finally, he started his own business, Breit-bart.com and the “Big” conservative sites—Big Government, Big Hollywood, etc.—which made him (1) really famous, (2) a giant star in the conservative movement, (3) high on the left’s Public Enemies list. I honestly couldn’t guess which of these pleased him most.
Breit-bart’s success gave me genuine pleasure. Because he deserved it. Because he earned it. Because it’s rare when one of the good guys wins.
The last time I saw him was at the 2011 CPAC. I was meeting a friend for coffee upstairs at the Marriott Wardman Park and Andrew was in a corner of the restaurant, in animated discussion with probably a dozen people. I didn’t stop over to say hello—there’s a lesson. But I smiled as I watched him holding court, and remembered what he had said at our first lunch together.
And I’m smiling today at my luck to have met him that first time, as he stuck his head out of the secret passage in the Bat Cave.
Jonathan V. Last
* * *
I woke up last Thursday morning to about 10 emails from journalists 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 behind his elegant wife Susie and his four beloved children? 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 Breit-bart 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 Andrew Breitbart 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 laughed at it, and even egged it on. 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—he made it his vocation to drive people crazy. Whatever detractors say, or more likely, whatever they spray, Breit-bart clearly excelled at his job.
His intensity could be alternately 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 his 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, Breit-bart 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 Andrew, his wife, Fox News host Greg Gutfeld, and I were having drinks at a Washington, D.C., hotel, Breit-bart 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 Breit-bart, and which in turn, he tormented.
There’s not a chance I could pick Eric Boehlert out of a police lineup. But there’s no way Breit-bart 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?”
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 Bernardine 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 was that he had the quality that all the people I like most have: He made me laugh. Whatever his faults, he was wicked and loyal and funny.
Our friend, Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson, had won the Ayers dinner at a fundraising auction for the Illinois Humanities Council, and had brought us along. Tucker and I were a little worried that we had 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 an anything-can-happen day.
Breitbart, though, 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?”
Breit-bart, 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. Breit-bart was full of stories and ideas and asides. He sang along lustfully when our cabdriver blasted Teena Marie’s ’80s hit “Lovergirl.” He told me of his super-secret guerrilla PR campaign for an 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 secretly 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-Breit-bart 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 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 getting older, 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 sings about 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 a.m. to 3 p.m., 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 Breit-bart 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 if 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.”
* * *
I suspect many of Andrew Breitbart’s friends thinking about how they’ll remember Andrew will picture him charging through the lobby of a hotel followed by opponents hoping to trip him up, supporters cheering on the confrontation, or journalists taking it all in. Some will recall seeing him give a speech to hundreds of conservative activists as he did in Michigan the last Saturday in February. Many will remember having drinks or dinner or coffee with Andrew and a large group of people crowded around a tiny bar table or spilling out awkwardly into the aisles of a restaurant.
This is who he was and what he did. His influence on journalism is indisputable. He was the silent partner in the Drudge Report for a decade. He helped start the Huffington Post. He created Big Government and the associated “Big” websites. He advised the founders of the Daily Caller. He was a pioneer of the kind of “combat journalism” practiced by the new Washington Free Beacon.
Andrew didn’t always get it right. None of us does. We had differences about a number of things, including the wisdom and utility of engaging political opponents willing to just make stuff up. Andrew thrived on confrontations and sought them out. He believed that someone had to fight the distortions and misrepresentations of the left, and that it was important to do it without the conventional politeness of those who use words like “distortions” and “misrepresentations” instead of “lies.” He went after his opponents aggressively and made enemies. But he made just as many friends, including quite a few who disagreed with him vehemently.
He brought together people who would have never met were it not for his insistence that they would get along or learn from each other. He was almost always right. And following the confirmation of his death last Thursday—after many minutes believing, hoping, and praying that it was a big hoax—I thought of the many people I had met because of him.
John Wordin called early. He runs Ride 2 Recovery, a charity that helps soldiers recover from battle wounds, physical and mental. Andrew introduced us by email because of our common interest in those who fight our wars. Three weeks later I was on a 350-mile bike ride across Texas with several dozen soldiers and Marines and, for one hilarious day at the end, Andrew himself.
Andrew wasn’t exactly a natural cyclist. To the extent that he exercised at all, it was usually some kind of activity that didn’t require a ton of exertion. He knew—we all knew—that he was unlikely to finish the ride of some 70 miles, but he didn’t much care. That night, we had one of those only-in-Breitbart-world dinners, spilling out of a booth at a Dallas steakhouse. Actress Kristy Swanson was there. So was Chad Fleming, a decorated special-ops soldier. Andrew had brought Jon David Kahn, a former Stanford tennis player and songwriter who worked at the time under a pseudonym because of his conservative politics. There was a lawyer from Dallas and a friend. As usual, Andrew did most of the talking, flitting from subject to subject as a fruit fly jumps from banana to banana. There were snatches of conversation about reality television, nighttime raids in Iraq, the left-leaning bias of the mainstream media, our families.
The last subject was inescapable. Andrew had brought to Texas, and to dinner, Samson, the oldest of his four children, who was perhaps 10 years old. So we talked to Samson a bit about surfing and school and girls. He answered politely, but I got the sense the adults were more interested in talking about those subjects than he was. He was content to sit and listen. He was just excited to be along with his dad.
Andrew and I talked about Samson, his siblings, and their mother at some length when I saw him at a Tea Party conference in Troy, Michigan, the Saturday afternoon before he died. He’d just finished giving a highly entertaining and, as always, provocative speech to an appreciative crowd. (The ovations for Andrew were far louder than the ones for either of the two presidential candidates who would speak to the crowd that day.) We talked about his recent confrontation with an Occupy Wall Street crowd at CPAC and the fact that he’d decided to shave his beard because he thought he looked more slovenly with it than the protesters he was mocking.
On Saturday, Andrew was more contemplative than usual. He was concerned about being away from his family as much as his hectic schedule seemed to require. The blessing of a career like the one Andrew had is that he could make his own schedule. He traveled more than a father and husband with a typical 9-to-5 job, but when he was not on the road he often worked from home and got more family time than a normal job would provide. He told me again, as he had dozens of times earlier, what a saint his wife Susie was to put up with all of the complications that went along with being his spouse. The balance is difficult for anyone in our profession and Andrew wanted to be sure he was finding the right one. We had barely started that conversation when our pressing schedules made us end it, for good as it turns out.
Andrew brought Samson when he picked me up at LAX several years ago. I stayed at his house, as I did nearly every time I was in Los Angeles, and we woke early the next morning so that Andrew could host Dennis Miller’s radio show. The show was disjointed, hilarious, scattered, irreverent, and fun—all Andrew.
Afterwards, we picked up a 30-pack of Miller Lite and a boxful of L.A.’s legendary Zankou Chicken before returning to his house. The group there included, at various times, Dennis Miller’s producer, Christian Bladt; Andrew’s good friend and business partner, Larry Solov; a good friend from his high school, the liberal lawyer who lives across the street; and Micheal Flaherty, the head of Walden Media, a film production company. Andrew gave us newcomers a tour of his house—the new sport court in the back for the kids, the multimedia set-up in virtually every room, the custom-made Starbucks bar he’d set up.
We stood around the island in his kitchen that afternoon for hours, talking about big questions—the American Revolution, classical liberal political philosophy, homosexuality and conservatism, preemptive war, and the meaning of life. Andrew led the conversation and asked most of the questions, using those of us who shared many of his views to take the arguments to those who did not.
But it was the end of the conversation that was the first thing I thought of when I finally understood that he had died. It was the first thing that Flaherty, a friend of Andrew’s who became one of mine that day, remembered too:
“Fittingly, the last question was about heaven and the afterlife. On this one Andrew just sat back with a smile and listened to a lot of us talk about it from our different faith perspectives, particularly Buddhists and Christians, thrilled to hear different points of view. Little did we know when we wrapped up our conversation on heaven that day that Andrew would be the first of us to get there and hear those words we all long to hear—‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ ”
Stephen F. Hayes