Andrew Breitbart’s sudden death on March 1 at the age of 43 shocked North American observers. A social media pioneer, political pundit and Washington Times columnist, he was viewed as a beacon of light by some individuals — and a controversial spokesperson by others. Yet there was never any doubt that he cared deeply about his wife and family, politics, the US conservative movement, and the need to get President Barack Obama out of the White House in November.
Glowing tributes were immediately posted on Facebook and Twitter. Prominent conservative publications such as the Weekly Standard and National Review published wonderful, heartwarming eulogies about their late friend and comrade-in-arms. Political stalwarts, from Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich to Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, were quick to acknowledge Breitbart’s influential role. There were also scathing comments from the Left (Slate‘s Matt Yglesias: “The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBreitbart dead”) and the Right (the Daily Beast‘s David Frum: “It’s difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous.”)
Alas, news of the blogging giant’s death in the UK resembled the sound of crickets. A few articles dribbled in, and The Times eventually ran an obituary. Only the blogging community reacted quickly, such as Paul “Guido Fawkes” Staines’s tribute describing Breitbart as “provocative and brave”. That’s a real shame, and it proves how underrated he was in this part of the world. He shouldn’t have been.
Breitbart helped define the internet as a useful tool for conservatives. Very few people on the Right at that time truly understood the power of social media. They didn’t comprehend how it could be used to attract popular interest, motivate general discussion, and get things done. Breitbart got it, so to speak, and played a huge role in selling the message to others.
He worked with Matt Drudge, and transformed the Drudge Report into an influential news aggregation website. He eventually started Breitbart.com, and followed up with other websites: BigHollywood.com, BigGovernment.com, BigJournalism.com, and BigPeace.com. He introduced Breitbart TV, which included clips of powerful figures making either sensible or outrageous statements. He also helped Arianna Huffington (formerly a conservative, now a liberal) with her launch of the Huffington Post. Yet his influence went much further than the mere act of building websites.
Breitbart was a conservative Everyman, an ex-liberal who saw the light, understood what he needed to, and became part of a political world that had probably never crossed his imagination. His personal mission was to improve conservative prospects, increase the Right’s voice, and promote the important concepts of liberty, democracy and freedom. He regularly met Republican politicians and Tea Party members — and would chat, argue and debate with just about anyone who emailed, texted or tweeted him anything from a nasty comment to a praiseworthy note.
In many ways, Breitbart’s life and quest reminds me of the famous passage from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If. He could “talk with crowds” or “walk with Kings” without losing “the common touch”. And he certainly filled “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”.
To be sure, Breitbart wasn’t perfect. He was more of a political activist and populist conservative than a true conservative intellectual. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a bright and talented individual — by all accounts, he was — but rather that his methods were more of the smash-mouth, or brute force, variety.
There were great successes. He brought down Anthony Weiner after the Democratic congressman denied, and later acknowledged that a sexually explicit photograph he had sent to a young woman via Twitter (which was subsequently posted on BigJournalism.com) was of him.
There were also missteps. In one example, his big revelation about Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod — and her subsequent removal — turned sour after a short, edited video clip of her speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People was found to have taken her views on race out of context.
Breitbart’s legacy should be judged by what he helped accomplish for conservatism, in the US and beyond. He helped create a more vocal and active movement. He assembled a team of young and seasoned political commentators, who will continue to fight for the ideas and values he treasured. He taught conservatives to challenge the mainstream media’s liberal bias, and use citizen journalism to reveal the truth.
Andrew Breitbart may have died young, but he walked a million miles in his shoes for conservatives. Requiescat in pace.