Last spring, when Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) accidentally tweeted a photo of his erection to his entire feed — the first brick in an infidelity scandal that would include sexting porn stars, nude cellphone pics and Weiner's eventual resignation — the alarm didn't sound from New York City or Washington, D.C.
Instead, it sounded from the haphazard West L.A. offices of renegade new-media mogul Andrew Breitbart.
The conservative blogger promptly flew to D.C., crashed Weiner's press conference and demanded an apology from the shamed Democratic congressman.
Breitbart's distinct West Coastness “created something of a mystique about him among people that cover news and politics in D.C. and New York,” says Boston native Charles Johnson, a contributor to Breitbart sites including BigGovernment.com. “They didn't know what to make of this guy.”
Johnson describes his former boss as “California casual to the extreme … an unmade bed of a person.”
Many traditional journalists were appalled by Breitbart's ramshackle approach. He was “a street fighter, a bar brawler,” says Ted Rall, a New York political cartoonist who often argued online with Breitbart, as so many did. Yet he also employed “this celebrity-stalking, TMZ, paparazzi-type thing,” Rall says.
Reluctantly, any major newspaper with hope for 21st-century survival has been forced to pick up juicy online breaks in the Breitbart tradition. Weiner wasn't the first; Breitbart's previous victims include a former official of the U.S. Agriculture Department and public-housing organization ACORN, both forced out of commission after Breitbart posted scandalous (and, in the case of agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, strategically edited) video footage.
The next target in his relentless crusade to take down the “Democrat-Media Complex” was President Barack Obama — until last week, when the ambitious 43-year-old suddenly collapsed while walking in Brentwood, less than a mile from his Westwood home.
Joel Pollak, chief deputy for the Big sites, says an “obsessed” Breitbart was working around the clock on a relaunch of his online empire. On the night he died, he worked late before reportedly stopping by a local bar called the Brentwood to talk politics with perfect strangers. His Twitter feed was lit up until the moment he collapsed.
“I called you a putz cause I thought you were being intentionally disingenuous. If not I apologize,” Breitbart tweeted to a law student in Texas not an hour before he was rushed to UCLA Medical Center. The student has since called that final Breitbart insult “a badge of honor.”
So how did liberal, politically lackadaisical Los Angeles birth the sharpest tongue in right-wing politics?
“Angelenos, especially of the West Los Angeles variety, especially those who work in the entertainment industry, don't take too kindly to dissent — if you are a conservative, that is,” Breitbart wrote in his 2011 autobiography. Yet he chose to live here, save a couple short stints in the South and innumerable flights to the Capitol (which he called “excruciating,” because they interrupted his “24/7 digital Wi-Fi life”) to show America what he'd dug up next.
It was in his first postcollegiate job as an L.A. script runner that Breitbart was introduced to AM talk radio. Soon after, in 1990s Hollywood, Breitbart was right-hand “bitch” for conservative Internet hero Matt Drudge and played a key role in building one of the most trafficked news sites in the world. “I still see him in my mind's eye in Venice Beach, the sunny day I met him,” Drudge wrote in a tribute to Breitbart. “He was in his mid 20s. It was all there.”
He became friends with Arianna Huffington, working as a researcher in her Brentwood basement. Years later, joking that he was “the only Republican from Brentwood,” Breitbart would puzzle conservatives and libertarians by happily designing and search engine–optimizing his friend's Huffington Post, the left-leaning megasite.
Aggregation; big, fat headlines; split-second uploads; trending topics. Breitbart understood the future of journalism before most news outlets figured out how to link.
Amy Alkon, a rabble-rousing advice columnist from Venice, says of Breitbart's stomping ground: “In a sense, it's still the Wild West.” By contrast, in New York, where Alkon used to live, “You need a pedigree to be in some parts of society.”
Eccentric international filmmaker Werner Herzog recently argued in GQ, “The last half-century, almost every single important cultural trend and technological trend originated from California.”
According to Pollak, Breitbart's chief deputy, once the Big sites got major traffic, the team considered moving to D.C. But in the end, they chose Los Angeles.
“It's like a great romantic story in the sense that it has that tension — the upsides and the downsides,” Pollak says. “Andrew made what would have been a monolithic, consensus-oriented, everyone-wear-the-same-color political scene [into something] exciting, suspenseful, controversial.”
For a Tea Party conservative whose persona relied on conflict, L.A. was an ideal boxing ring. “You can't really separate him from his liberal environments,” Johnson says.
“Andrew delighted in pissing people off,” Alkon says. “And here is a whole town of them to piss off.”
In fact, his fight was more cultural than political. Breitbart always preached that Hollywood was the heart that kept the Democratic Party alive, financially and ideologically. He wasn't as interested in policy as in the media industries that held the power to popularize political ideas.
“He didn't care what was going on at L.A. City Hall — he wanted to know what was going on on the Paramount lot,” Pollak says. He believed that if you control the poets, you control the state.
Dozens of the fallen provocateur's media friends gathered for a monthly party at an elegant home in Santa Monica Canyon last Friday. Contrary to posthumous attacks by adversaries who proclaimed him “a douche” and “a piece of scum,” they talked of a loving husband, an inspirational father to his four young children and an L.A. spirit who fought for the sheer fun of it. Once the red meat had been devoured and all that remained was the wine, TV producer Rob Long told the one about Breitbart schooling a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters:
Breitbart was driving with his kids to a nursery supply store on Bundy Drive, Long said, when he noticed picketers outside KTTV, the Fox affiliate. He walked up to the protesters and told them in that loud, gleeful voice that they probably wanted Fox's network news office, a block east. Their refusal to listen only delighted him more.
Breitbart often took on Occupy protesters, grilling them with constitutional trivia and heckling union leaders. All on tape, of course — including one viral video of Breitbart being dragged off, screaming that occupiers were “freaks and animals” who had raped and murdered America.
As much as he loved talking smack to Bill Maher on national TV, Breitbart never looked happier — or crazier — than when he was going head-to-head with the citizens.
“I feel terrible that L.A. never really reconciled with Andrew,” says an emotional Pollak. “But I think Andrew did” — reconcile with L.A. — “in his heart.”
One iconic image of Breitbart was taken for Time in 2010 It showed him balancing his laptop above his bubble bath, SoCal sunlight streaming into his upstairs bathroom. Journalist Steve Oney wrote in the accompanying story of holding tight to Breitbart's passenger seat as the rising star raced home “via the sort of shortcuts only native Angelenos know.” In that moment, Breitbart said to him, “I feel very alive.”
Looking back, Oney now says, “It was phenomenal to be with him as he drove in his Range Rover, zipping along, with the 405 in complete gridlock. It seems a metaphor for the way he lived. There was an improbable speed to Andrew's rise, and to Andrew's untimely death.”