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.