"Media Is Everything. It's Everything."
Slate's 2010 profile of Andrew Breitbart.
Breitbart wasn't always conservative. He wasn't even always a Breitbart. He was adopted at 3 weeks old in 1969 by Gerald and Arlene Breitbart, who raised him in Brentwood, an upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles. His father owned a restaurant, his mother was a banker—which by Brentwood standards made them working class. His sister, Tracey, a year younger, was also adopted, as were many of his friends. "Adoption was a big thing before Roe v. Wade," he said. "Trust me on that one." (Breitbart said he once bribed someone in Sacramento $500 to show him his original birth certificate. His birth father had listed his occupation as "folk singer.")
His parents raised him Jewish—his mother converted in order to marry his father—but the faith didn't take. Especially when he realized Mom and Dad weren't exactly frum. One day, he fell and chipped his tooth. "I said, 'Jesus Christ,' and my mom said, 'Don't use the Lord's name in vain.' I was like, 'I'm Jewish, Jesus is not the Lord. I was just Bar Mitzvah'ed. You were there.' " When their rabbi defended Jesse Jackson after his "Hymietown" comment, the family left the synagogue. Breitbart remembers his upbringing as otherwise apolitical. But in 1980s Los Angeles, apolitical generally meant liberal by default. More important was celebrity culture. His friends' parents would send his parents pictures of themselves in Beverly Hills society magazines. "My dad would be like, 'Why are they sending us this?' "
Breitbart didn't do well at the Brentwood School, one of the top private schools in L.A. He was friends with most everyone in his class—"My sense of humor saved me"—but did not distinguish himself in academics or extracurricular activities. His football coach, Pat Brown, said he was always screwing up the plays: "Things like not knowing the assignment. Maybe hitting someone too late. I always said there's a fine line between aggressiveness and stupidity."
One of the first articles Breitbart ever published appeared in his high-school newspaper, the Brentwood Eagle, in 1986. It was an anthropological dissection of the school's senior and junior parking lots. One had Mercedes and BMWs, the other Sciroccos and GTIs. Breitbart needed a quote to support his thesis. So he made one up—and attributed it to the new kid from South Korea, Henry Sohn. Breitbart recalls it verbatim: "Seniors are having too much of nice car than juniors." "He loved it," Breitbart says. It was an epiphany. Not only did Breitbart enjoy writing—he found he could do it in a quirky, funny, politically incorrect way.
Breitbart kept writing in college. His first piece for the Tulane Hullaballoo was a field analysis of Tulane's most notoriously debauched hookup bar, complete with annotated floor diagrams and submitted on 19 cocktail napkins. "Then I started to descend into pure weirdness," Breitbart said. His articles were stream-of-consciousness brain dumps written on deadline. One recounted a bowling date with the fictional Ambassador Johnny Autrod DeBumperspoons. "He was ambassador to Chile," Breitbart said, "but he was also ambassador to Chili's the restaurant chain, and the ambassador to the sensation of being chilly."
College was also when Breitbart began to question liberalism—or at least its judgmental, humorless coastal variant. He'd come back home to Los Angeles to find friends skeptical of the South. "I said, 'You won't believe it, these are people who are actually normal, actually funnier than us, and they're not as uptight, it's really weird. They're not snobs.' And they're like, 'You're wrong about those people, they're ignorant and they're horrible.' So I go, 'There's something wrong with this picture.' "
For four years after college, Breitbart bounced from job to job, city to city. He waited tables at Hal's Bar and Grill near Venice Beach. He wrote for an alternative music magazine, which allowed him to interview bands he loved—Crowded House, The Church, The The. He moved to Austin for a year. He coded briefly for E! Online.
He'd always wanted to write comedy (dream job: writing jokes for Chris Elliott), so he went to work for a production company. It didn't go well. Part of it was the material. One supposedly big break for him was an offer to develop Valley Girl 2. "I remember being like, 'Wait, is this not the worst fucking idea you've ever heard of?' " The other part was the crowd. "The people who come to L.A. saw Beverly Hills, 90210 or a variation on that theme, and so that's how they act there. Or they see Entourage. So you have bad actors coming to Hollywood bad-acting the part of what they think Hollywood is like. So you have really insecure people in a non-meritocracy where it's all about your relationships, who are vicious backstabbers, who don't think you should be dating somebody. It's like an orgy of people climbing over each other to stick it into the next orifice."
Breitbart first met Susie Bean at a karaoke bar in 1988. He'd heard about her from their mutual friend, Mike, who phoned Breitbart at Tulane to tell him that he'd met Breitbart's future wife. When he and Susie landed back in Los Angeles four years later, they bonded over their shared appreciation of Chris Elliott's genius. Breitbart was nearly as smitten with Susie's father, the actor Orson Bean, as he was with Susie. And vice versa. "I was very taken with him," said Bean. A former liberal who had been blacklisted as a Communist in the 1950s, Bean was also the person who introduced Breitbart to Rush Limbaugh. Breitbart spotted a copy of The Way Things Ought To Be on the coffee table. "I said, 'Did you read this for giggles?' " Breitbart said. "He said, 'Have you listened to Rush?' I said, 'Yeah, he's a Nazi or something.' He goes, 'Are you sure you've listened to him?' " When Breitbart's favorite radio station started playing grunge—which he despised—he flipped to talk radio instead. "At first it was like a foreign language to me. But over time, it started to make sense."
That was around the time of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, to which Breitbart traces his politicization. He was a liberal then. But watching Ted Kennedy and Senate Democrats accuse Thomas of sexually harassing Anita Hill broke the needle on his hypocrisy meter. "These white, privileged men knew that by taking this conservative, religious man and asking him if he rented pornography, the mere exposure of that would hurt. … I was so pissed off. You guys are just trying to ruin him. You don't have anything." The Clinton presidency further stoked his rage. "Bill Clinton comes in, and his entire M.O. is mowing down as much trim as he can. … Yet the feminists ignored Bill Clinton and they excoriated Clarence Thomas. That's everything to me."
Professionally, Breitbart struggled. "I was like, 'Please God—and I'm not religious—please God, give me something that I'm passionate about. Because I cannot do something well that I'm not passionate about.' "
In 1995, Breitbart started reading Matt Drudge's e-mail newsletter, then called, simply, Report. It wasn't a Web site yet—just a mix of Hollywood gossip, Clinton Whitewater news, and extreme weather. Breitbart was impressed enough to send Drudge a note. Drudge lived in Hollywood at the time, and they arranged a meeting. Breitbart soon started working for Drudge. He doesn't like to talk about that period, citing Drudge's desire for privacy. "He's a mysterious dude. And I grant him that mystery."
What we do know is that the Drudge Report was not a cash cow—at least not at first. (Drudge started running ads in 1999.) So while Breitbart had found his dream job, it wasn't feeding him. Breitbart eventually became known as Drudge's second-in-command—or, as he put it, "Drudge's bitch." Drudge would aggregate and post headlines in the morning; Breitbart would take the afternoon shift.
It was Drudge who introduced Breitbart to Arianna Huffington, then a conservative syndicated columnist, who hired Breitbart as her research assistant. "Arianna was my Mr. Miyagi," Breitbart said. "She turned me from a slacker into a hyperproductive person." Breitbart originally thought he'd be doing Web design for her. But it quickly became clear he would be her researcher—sometimes up to 16 hours a day. "I was like, what did I sign up for?"
In retrospect, that Breitbart discovered his two loves simultaneously—politics and the Internet—seems miraculous. So does the timing. Breitbart was able to embrace the Web only because he had drifted for so long. "All my other friends were committed, whether it be law school, medical school," he said. "I had zero to lose. So I was like, This is it. I'm doing it."
Some say the Internet is changing the way our brains work. Whatever that way is, Breitbart's ADD-addled brain was already there. "I have a very good memory. I'm also good at connecting things together. That allowed me to make outrageous cockamamie narratives. To be able to apply that to the newsworld, that was it."
Breitbart stuck with Drudge for the good part of a decade. In 1997, he and Susie got married in Orson Bean's backyard garden on the Venice canals in Los Angeles. Their first of four children, Samson, was born two years later. Breitbart took on side projects. In 2004, he co-produced a documentary about the death of Vince Foster that was slated to appear on the History Channel but never ran. That same year, he co-authored a book with the journalist Mark Ebner about the absurdity of celebrity culture, Hollywood, Interrupted. (The book is dedicated to "Benjamin Geza Affleck.")
Along the way, Breitbart eased into a new role as curator, connector, and booster of the right. Especially in Hollywood. He became a regular at the monthly gathering of L.A. writers and pundits at the Japanese restaurant Yamashiro. He befriended Ann Coulter. He would later introduce Steven Soderbergh's agent-turned-right-wing-documentarian Pat Dollard to financial backers for his film about Iraq. "I'm the Simon Cowell of the conservative movement," Breitbart said. "You've got talent, you don't."
After the 2004 election, Breitbart got a call from Huffington. She wanted to talk about starting a Web site. Breitbart no longer worked for her—he had moved to Drudge full time in 1999, and Huffington had since become a devout liberal—but they were still friends. At Huffington's request, Breitbart said, he drew up the plan that eventually became the Huffington Post. "It was basically my idea," Breitbart recalled. (Though the name, he said, came from his wife. Arianna initially wanted to call it the Huffington Report). "I was basically the architect and they were the implementers."
A Huffington Post spokesman disputed Breitbart's account: "It's odd that five years after HuffPost launched, Andrew Breitbart is now claiming he 'created the Huffington Post.' Whatever. Success has many fathers, right? Arianna Huffington and Ken Lerer created the Huffington Post. Andrew helped get it up and running, as did Jonah Peretti and Roy Sekoff. It was a team effort. But Andrew didn't come up with the idea."
Breitbart was brought on full time in the months leading up to the site's launch. The plan was to have Huffington oversee the blogs—the site relied on celebrity screeds more than it does now—while Breitbart would handle the news aggregation. Kenneth Lerer, a former AOL Time Warner executive vice president who would become chairman of Huffington Post, shuttled between the news and business sides.
Breitbart said he knew that working at a liberal site would produce conflict—within himself, as much as with others. But the opportunity to do something new and influential was too tempting. "I didn't want to exist in Drudge's shadow in perpetuity," he said. "And by helping Arianna create the Huffington Post and making it a success, I felt it would allow for people to say, 'Oh, this guy kind of understands this milieu.' " The Huffington Post, meanwhile, could brag that it had stolen the secret sauce from Drudge.
Once the site launched, Breitbart lasted three weeks. "Editorial differences to the nth degree" is how he characterizes the breakup. Breitbart was nominally in charge of aggregation. But he had thought that while the opinion blogs would be mostly liberal, he could bring in some conservative voices. This turned out not to be the case. He was also asked to take a larger role in the site's day-to-day operations than he had expected.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.