This is an excerpt from George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In February 1969—when the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, was watched by 20 million viewers, or 1 in 6 households—a 3-week-old baby boy of Irish descent was adopted in Los Angeles by a Jewish steakhouse owner and his banker wife, Gerald and Arlene Breitbart, and given the name Andrew.
When Andrew was 2, the New York Times and the Washington Post published The Pentagon Papers, defying threats by the Nixon White House. The next year, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were assigned by the Post to cover a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. Andrew’s toddler years coincided with the golden age of Old Media.
The Breitbarts were upper-middle-class Republicans (four bedrooms, a pool, a canyon view) living in rich, liberal Brentwood. Andrew grew up on American pop culture, British new wave, and Hollywood celebrity. “Which famous people come into the restaurant?” he would ask his father (the Reagans, Broderick Crawford, Shirley Jones, and the Cassidy family, among lots of other celebs). Andrew took tennis lessons from the top pro in Malibu and once spent 15 unforgettable minutes looking for the instructor with Farrah Fawcett.
Andrew was 11 when the Cable News Network went on the air in 1980. He was 13 when The McLaughlin Group and Crossfire introduced yelling heads to news analysis. From early on, Andrew was a breaking-news junkie. At the Brentwood School he made up for being neither famous nor rich by cutting up in class and inventing droll quotations for stories in the Brentwood Eagle about high-school social life. To keep up with his friends, he had to take a job delivering pizzas and pocketed big tips from the likes of Judge Reinhold. Basically, Andrew was “the ultimate Generation X slacker,” Breitbart later wrote, “not particularly political, and, in retrospect, a default liberal. I thought that going to four movies a week, knowing the network television grid, and spending hours at Tower Records were my American birthright.”
In 1987—the year that the Federal Communications Commission voted 4–0 to repeal its own Fairness Doctrine, which had been in effect since 1949 and required licensees of the public airwaves to present important issues in an honest and equitable manner (a vote that paved the way the following year for a Sacramento radio host named Rush Limbaugh to syndicate his conservative talk show nationally)—Breitbart entered Tulane. He spent his four years in New Orleans partying with a group of wealthy, hilarious, debauched friends; drinking himself into oblivion; and betting his parents’ money on football games and backgammon.
In his weakened state, Breitbart was exposed to the pernicious influence of his American studies professors and their reading lists, which included Foucault, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse rather than Emerson and Twain. Fortunately, he was too drunk to be thoroughly indoctrinated in critical theory, but the prevailing philosophy of moral relativism inevitably eroded his personal standards. It wasn’t such a big step from the Frankfurt School to getting shitfaced nightly.
Breitbart stumbled through graduation and returned home to L.A., where his parents cut off his stipend, giving him the shock of his life. He started waiting tables near Venice Beach. Hard work was fulfilling. “My values were returning from exile.”
In the fall of 1991, he tuned in to the Clarence Thomas hearings, fully expecting to side with Anita Hill and the Democrats. Instead, he was outraged that porn rentals and a stray comment about a stray pubic hair on a can of Coke were being used to destroy an honorable man because he was conservative and black—with supposedly neutral journalists leading the mob. Breitbart’s eyes began to open, and hatred was born in his fun-loving soul. He would never forgive the mainstream media.
Several more years passed before Andrew Breitbart found his mission in life. In 1992—the year Warren Buffett, a major investor in the Washington Post Company, warned that “the economic strength of once-mighty media enterprises continues to erode as retailing patterns change and advertising and entertainment choices proliferate”—Breitbart got a job delivering scripts around Hollywood. He preferred listening to FM radio in his Saab convertible to kissing ass in the outer offices of Michael Ovitz or going to parties where people said, “I work in the clothing room at Mad About You.” But when grunge took over the alternative rock stations (“Who were these whiny, suicidal freaks?”), he switched in disgust to the AM dial. There, talk radio was waiting for him.
He found that he would do anything to listen to Howard Stern and Jim Rome. He put on a Walkman and kept listening after getting out of his car to make his script deliveries. But he was still enough of an unthinking liberal that, upon seeing Limbaugh’s book The Way Things Ought to Be on the coffee table of his girlfriend’s father, a TV actor named Orson Bean, he scoffed.
“Have you listened to Rush?” Breitbart’s future father-in-law asked.
“Yeah, he’s a Nazi or something.”
“Are you sure you’ve listened to him?”
Orson Bean, a game show regular from the ’60s, was the seventh-most frequent guest on The Tonight Show—his opinion counted. And after tuning in to Limbaugh over months during the 1992 campaign, Breitbart began to regard El Rushbo as his true professor. “I marveled at how he could take a breaking news story and offer an entertaining and clear analysis that was like nothing I had ever seen on television.” The hidden structure of things was becoming clear.
That same year, a friend from high school who was worried that Breitbart was adrift paid a visit to his apartment and told him, “I’ve seen your future and it’s the Internet.”
Breitbart replied, “What’s the Internet?”
One night in 1994, he vowed not to leave his room until he was connected. It took a rotisserie chicken, a six-pack of Pilsner Urquell, and several hours of sweaty effort with a primitive modem of that time, but at last he heard the crackle of a connection and suddenly Andrew Breitbart was linked to the Internet, the one place beyond the reach of the Democrat-Media Complex where you could say and think and be anything, and he was born again.
It wasn’t long afterward that Breitbart found a one-man news digest called the Drudge Report—a mishmash of politics, Hollywood gossip, and extreme weather reports. He was hooked, and when Drudge began exposing Clinton sex scandals that the media wouldn’t touch, Breitbart knew what he wanted to do with his life. Drudge and the Internet rescued him from the cynical irony of his generation and showed him the power of one individual to expose the corruption of the complex. Breitbart was so awed that he sent an email to the secretive Matt Drudge:
“Are you fifty people? A hundred people? Is there a building?” Drudge introduced him to a rich Greek-born L.A. divorcee and author named Arianna Huffington, who wanted to do the same kind of awesome Web-based muckraking as Drudge. In the summer of 1997—a year after MSNBC and Fox News launched—Breitbart was invited to her Brentwood mansion, and over spanakopita and iced tea Arianna offered him a job. Pretty soon she couldn’t get him to go home.
The Internet and the conservative movement fused together in Breitbart’s brain. He read Camille Paglia on academic politics and saw his whole life as an illustration of the complex’s totalitarian power. He’d been living behind enemy lines ever since birth: the liberal fascism of the Hollywood elite, the left-wing bias of the mainstream media, the Nazi-fleeing German philosophers of his Tulane syllabi who had settled in L.A. and taken over higher education in order to destroy the coolest lifestyle in history and impose their Kurt Cobain–like depressive nihilistic Marxism. The left knew what the right ignored: New York, Hollywood, and college campuses mattered more than Washington, D.C. The political war was all about culture. A barely employed, autodidactic Gen-X convert with an ADD diagnosis and an Internet addiction was uniquely well-armed to fight it.
For the next eight years Breitbart worked with Arianna and Drudge. He helped Arianna with her biggest coup, getting a Clinton crony who had fabricated his war record disinterred from Arlington National Cemetery. Who needed the New York Times? “We were all doing more from Los Angeles with minimal resources than the mainstream media were doing from Washington, D.C., with hundreds of reporters.”
The terrain Breitbart sauntered onto was diminishing, crumbling, wide open to him. Pillars of the Old Media were turning to infotainment and opinion journalism to save money and hold on to a distracted audience. Reporters were spooked because Jayson Blair made up stories in the Times and Dan Rather aired phony documents on 60 Minutes, while watchdogs on the right and left barked ferociously at their every hint of bias, and upstarts of the New Media jeered the frightened gatekeepers, until no one knew who was right and what was true and no one trusted the press and the press stopped trusting itself.
It was the perfect environment for Breitbart to stake his own claim. In 2005—the year Rather was sacked by CBS, the Wall Street Journal reduced its width from 15 to 12 inches, the Los Angeles Times cut another 62 newsroom jobs, and Arianna, by then a liberal convert, started Huffington Post with Andrew’s help (he later claimed to have thought it up as a fifth column in the complex)—Breitbart.com launched. It was a news aggregation site for wire service stories (you could bash the Old Media and feed off it at the same time) and a forum for truth-telling, in the spirit of the Swift Boat Vets and other citizen journalists. The great thing about New Media was anybody could do it. Breitbart would fly to New York all the time and make sure he got invited to mainstream media parties, where he drank their appletinis and pinot noir and made them think he was on their side, but at the end of dinner he would get in their faces and say, “You guys don’t get it. The American people are now in control of the narrative, and you can’t grab it for yourself and drive it off the cliff.”
Everything changed for Breitbart on the August day in 2009—the year the Chicago Tribune eliminated its foreign desk and the Washington Post closed its three remaining domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—when a young citizen journalist named James O’Keefe walked into his house with a batch of raw videos. They were the Abu Ghraib of the Great Society. They showed O’Keefe and another citizen journalist named Hannah Giles posing as a pimp and prostitute who wanted to set up a brothel using underage girls imported from El Salvador. James and Hannah brought their hidden camera into offices of the national left-wing organization ACORN in Baltimore, New York, and other cities, where low-level staffers sat across the table and gave them useful advice on how to establish their business while making the federal tax code work in their favor. “It was like watching Western civilization fall off of a cliff.”
Breitbart knew exactly what to do. Make news by breaking news. Feed the media like training a dog, one video at a time instead of the whole meal at once, catching ACORN and the news outlets off-guard, exposing their lies and biases while keeping the story alive. Use a friendly network like Fox News to amplify the effect. Stay on offense; be outrageous. His real target was the mainstream media—honestly, who cared about the poor homeowners that ACORN protected from predatory lenders, or the low-income workers whose wages it fought to raise? Within a few months, ACORN ceased to exist and Breitbart was a Tea Party hero and media bigs were competing to publish profiles of him. It felt like he was doing every single banned class-A narcotic simultaneously.
It was fun! Telling the truth was fun, having the American people behind him was fun, fucking with the heads of nervous journalists and helping the mainstream media commit suicide was fun. Breitbart went on Real Time With Bill Maher and stood up for himself and Rush to the politically correct hometown mob of an audience, and it was an incredibly committed moment in his life. He found himself the leader of a loose band of patriotic malcontents, and right in front of him was the same opportunity that the Founding Fathers had had—to fight a revolution against the complex.
And if he happened to get an Agriculture Department official named Shirley Sherrod fired by releasing a deceptively edited video that seemed to show her making anti-white comments when in fact she was doing just the opposite—fuck it, did the other side play fair? Anyway, Old Media’s rules about truth and objectivity were dead. What mattered was getting maximum bang from a story, changing the narrative. That was why Breitbart was winning, with ample help from his media enemies, and why he must have been at least semi-sober during his college classes on moral relativism.
In 2010 Breitbart was everywhere, Manhattan and D.C., the Tea Party Convention and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Twitter and YouTube, working his BlackBerry while talking on the phone, turning his florid face and keen blue eyes and wave of graying hair toward every camera aimed in his direction, getting up close with righteous indignation and puerile humor, jabbing his finger. Kate Zernike of the New York Times, are you in the room? You’re despicable. ... Ted Kennedy was a special pile of human excrement, he was a fucker, a big-ass motherfucker. ... When people are like, “What do you think we should do on health care?” I don’t have a fucking clue, it’s too complicated for me. ... It’s time for the allegedly pristine character of Representative John Lewis to put up or shut up ... they think they can take me down, that they can hurt me. It just makes me bigger. ... Fuck. You. John. Podesta. ... Have you ever seen me on TV? I always change the subject to the media context. ... Media is everything. ... It’s a fundamental flaw in my psyche—I don’t do well with death. ... They want to portray me as crazy, unhinged, unbalanced. OK, good, fine. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck—
On March 1, 2012, in the full flame of glory, less than a year after scoring his biggest coup in the shape of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s erect penis self-photographed behind gray briefs, shortly after leaving an evening of wine and talk in a Brentwood bar, Andrew Breitbart collapsed from heart failure and died at age 43.
Excerpted from The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, published in May 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by George Packer. All rights reserved.