Andrew Breitbart: The man behind the Shirley Sherrod affair
The command center of Andrew Breitbart’s growing media empire is a suite of offices on Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles with the temporary feel of a campaign office. Only the computers seem firmly anchored.
On a recent summer day, just weeks after he posted video clips that touched off a national furor over race, Breitbart was swigging a bottled Frappuccino at his desk. In a Lacoste shirt, cargo shorts and laceless Converse All-Stars, he looked every bit the 41-year-old industry player he might have been, but for a political awakening that transformed this liberal, West Side child of privilege into a Hollywood-hating, mainstream-media-loathing conservative.
Breitbart, who has emerged as a star of the"tea party” movement, loves telling his apostate’s tale in the italicized, frequently profane manner that is his trademark.
FOR THE RECORD:
Andrew Breitbart profile: An article in Friday’s Section A about Andrew Breitbart, the man behind the Shirley Sherrod furor, said he was a freshman at Tulane University in 1986. He was a freshman in 1987.
Three epiphanies stand out:
1. The Black Dorm Moment. In 1986, Breitbart was a freshman at Tulane University when his friend Larry Solov, a sophomore at Stanford, happened to mention his school’s African-American-themed residence hall.
“He just matter-of-factly said there was a black dorm and I was like, ‘What the friggin’ hell? Are you kidding me?’” said Breitbart, who is now business partners with Solov, a former corporate litigator. “And then, when I found out that it was not segregation in the sense of white people doing it, I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Why aren’t we working toward the colorblind ideal?’”
2. The Clarence Thomas Moment. In 1991, he was riveted by Supreme Court hearings in which the future associate justice was grilled by hostile Democrats.
“I remember the mainstream media telling me, ‘Bad man! Really bad man! Sexual harassment bad man! Worst-bad-man-in-the-history-of-the-world bad man!” he told a Philadelphia tea party rally in July. “By the end of the week, I said, ‘What did this man do? This man is an American hero!’ ? It was a cavalcade of Caucasians asking this man about his very private video rentals!”
3. The Kurt Cobain Moment, around 1994. “In essence, the media was saying, ‘Hey, see that guy, that’s your generation’s spokesman,’” said Breitbart, not a fan of grunge music’s suicidal prince. “I was like, ‘This guy seems like a world class [screw-up].’ And I just started to have the awkwardly pedestrian revelation that my parents were right.”
On the last day of July, Breitbart was walking along a downtown Philadelphia sidewalk, hungry and a little spacey from lack of sleep. On his own dime, he’d taken a red-eye from Los Angeles to appear at a tea party rally near the Liberty Bell. Twelve days earlier, on his Big Government website, Breitbart had posted an item that made him a household name.
The NAACP had accused the tea party of tolerating racism in its ranks, and Breitbart was looking for ammunition to fight back. The item he posted July 19 included two short video clips of a federal bureaucrat named Shirley Sherrod telling a Georgia chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People how she once gave short shrift to a white farmer.
In the rush to judgment that followed, the NAACP and the Obama administration condemned Sherrod, then looked foolish when it turned out that she had been a victim of deceptive editing: When the full video of Sherrod’s 43-minute speech was released, it showed her to have transcended racial animus and become an advocate for poor people, regardless of color.
Sherrod called Breitbart a racist and vowed to sue.
Breitbart’s misfire also tripped up some of his fellow conservatives: Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly apologized to Sherrod after calling for her resignation. Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Sherrod had been “smeared by right-wing media,” and suggested she’d been “the victim of a high-tech lynching.”
Breitbart defended himself with brio, but it was clear he had some regrets. “If I could do it all over again,” he told Newsweek, “I should have waited for the whole video to get to me.”
By the time he arrived in Philadelphia, though, he was in a fighting mood. His smoking gun was a quote from civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry, who had written on Politico that “tainting the tea party movement with racism is proving to be an effective strategy for Democrats.”
Berry, reached in Washington a few days later, was not pleased to hear it. “He’s a reprehensible guy who has just no excuse,” she said. “Obviously with Shirley Sherrod, Breitbart should be ashamed of himself.” (Breitbart shrugged it off. “She’s a leftist,” he said. “She’s not going to like me.”)
In the Meridien Hotel bar after his speech, Breitbart insisted his motives were pure. “I don’t like it when anybody is falsely branded a racist,” he said. “I’ll fight it, I’ll fight it, I’ll fight it! My disgust at racism is what turned me into what I am.” A post-racial future, he added, is his “dream.”
That drew a snort from one of his most vocal critics, Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at the liberal website Media Matters For America. “The problem is, on his website, he posts bloggers who call people racists all the time. What he means is you can’t call conservatives racist.”
Whatever else happens in this season of racial tension (go ahead, Google “New Black Panthers” or Laura Schlessinger + N-word), Breitbart’s confrontational tactics have put him on the cultural map. The comedy website Funny or Die posted a video showing “Breitbart” (played by a lookalike actor) apparently having sex with a goat, only to reveal he was actually pushing the animal out of the path of an oncoming truck. A message apologized for presenting the video “without appropriate context.”
His one-time idol David Letterman used a vulgar epithet to describe Breitbart (whose car license plate in high school was “L8NYGHT”). “It would have devastated me as a teenager,” Breitbart said, “but it didn’t affect me at all.”
Still, Breitbart’s the kind of guy who wants to be liked. He professes to loathe the journalistic establishment, often telling reporters, “It’s not your business model that sucks, it’s you.” But he is generous with his time and welcomes interviews, and before the Sherrod incident at least, he was rewarded with mostly favorable pieces in the New Yorker and Time magazine.
Boehlert said reporters are “willing to ignore the falsehoods he litters all over the place, and the ugly attacks, and toast him as this new media guru.”
“I think that shine is now off,” he said.
But Breitbart’s friend Mickey Kaus, the conservative Democratic blogger, said there was nothing fake about Breitbart’s ability to charm. “Everybody who meets him likes him. He is not a devious, Machiavellian guy. He reacts from his gut.”
Last year, for example, while having a drink on the veranda of the swanky Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica, Breitbart became incensed by antiwar protesters filing by on the boardwalk and angrily flipped them off. After discovering that they were protesting the abduction of children for conscription in Uganda and the Congo, he wrote a self-flagellating column for the Washington Times headlined “I, Jerk.”
Breitbart, who lives in Westwood with his wife, Susie, and their four young children, was adopted by moderately conservative Jewish parents and attended two of L.A.'s most exclusive private schools -- Carlthorp and Brentwood.
His father, Gerald, owned Fox and Hounds, a landmark Tudor-style Santa Monica restaurant that later became the punk rock club Madame Wong’s West. His mother, Arlene, was an executive for Bank of America in Beverly Hills and downtown L.A.
His sister, also adopted, is Latina. People make fun of how frequently he mentions being adopted, he said, but he added: “My family, it reflects that e pluribus unum mindset -- you know, that we’re one from many. My family is the American family.”
At Tulane, he joined a fraternity and developed a fondness for “girly” drinks and alt-80s British rock. “The music sort of meshed with my philosophical angst. I would say I was a shallow nihilist,” Breitbart said. “I had an affinity for Bertrand Russell and I was looking for intellectual architecture to frame my belief in nothing and my atheism.”
After college, Breitbart lived in Venice, where he waited on tables at Hal’s and was a self-described “rollerblading, gallivanting, jocular goofball. It’s embarrassing.” At Hal’s, he met his wife, the daughter of Orson Bean, the Venice actor and political conservative.
“Orson was there for my political transformation, and I don’t think it could have happened had I not had someone like him who I admired,” Breitbart said. “It was so awkward, the thoughts I was having.”
For 10 years -- four of them without a paycheck -- Breitbart toiled in virtual anonymity as editor of the Drudge Report. But some, like Kaus, spotted his talent early on. “I always knew he was going to build something big,” Kaus said. “He has that crazy Ted Turner look in his eyes.”
Later, Breitbart worked as a researcher for Arianna Huffington, helping launch the Huffington Post until ideological differences drove him out the door. He gives her credit for showing him how to survive vicious attacks with grace.
In 2004, he co-wrote “Hollywood, Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon -- the Case Against Celebrity,” a bestseller that gave him a taste for the spotlight. His second book, “Righteous Indignation,” for which he reportedly earned an advance of at least $500,000, will be out next spring. For months, a documentary film crew has been following him around.
Breitbart.com was launched as a news aggregation site in 2005. Later, a series of topical subsites was added -- Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism and Big Peace, all designed to counter what Breitbart describes as the “bully media cabal” that ignores stories at odds with prevailing liberal orthodoxy. His goal, he says often, is to “destroy the institutional left.”
Last fall, Breitbart made his first big splash. He posted an undercover video in which a pair of conservative activists posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend asked employees of the community group ACORN for help with a brothel that would house underage Salvadorans. ACORN was embarrassed when some of its workers seemed too helpful; Congress responded by defunding the organization.
For the last few weeks, Breitbart has been researching a story that came to his attention in the wake of the Sherrod misadventure: the government’s massive civil rights settlement with black farmers that the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against between 1981 and 1996. (Sherrod was a plaintiff in the case, Pigford vs. Glickman.)
For Breitbart, Pigford has become the subject of another epiphany.
“The more I look into this, the more sympathetic I am to the original case by the black farmers,” Breitbart said. “They got the short end of the stick in a major way.... There is a huge scandal here that is going to upset the status quo in America.”
Breitbart said he was even toying with reaching out to the Huffington Post or to the even more liberal Daily Kos for a joint investigation.
“I promise them,” Breitbart said, “there will be Republican carcasses too.”