Andrew Breitbart, who died in Los Angeles today at age 43, angered the left less because of what he did than what the left repeatedly failed to do itself.
I first encountered the conservative activist at the 2011 Netroots Nation conference, an annual gathering for progressive bloggers and tech types. Camera in hand, Breitbart had come over to the Netroots site from the conservative Right Online conference nearby. When he walked into the lobby, liberal activists shouted at him, accusing him of nefarious activities with male prostitutes and more. Breitbart smiled as he filmed it all.
When I tracked Breitbart down at Right Online a few minutes later, no one shouted at me (though many knew I was a progressive commentator from my appearances on Fox News). Breitbart had such a sense of humor about being vilified by the left that he posed for a picture in which he pretended to strangle me. Later that evening, we sat down and talked for an hour over drinks. I'm not sure how many other prominent left-wing activists would sit down for a long, probing conversation with a relative stranger from the right. Breitbart may have been nasty in public, but in private he was generous and kind.
Breitbart was such a looming and frustrating enemy of the left in part because he was a public-relations mastermind. He had an eye for digging up dirt and the unique combination of Internet savvy and charisma to spread his campaigns like wildfire. I think history will judge him unkindly for many of his actions, including his false attacks on ACORN and Shirley Sherrod. In the case of ACORN, a community organization that assisted low- and moderate-income Americans, Breitbart publicized a heavily doctored video in which ACORN workers appear to encourage prostitution; the resulting scandal led ACORN to close its doors. A year later, he got Shirley Sherrod, head of the United States Department of Agriculture's rural development office in Georgia, fired from her post by posting two clips that, taken out of context, appeared to show her admitting to bias against white people. The resulting media firestorm demonstrated the damage a rabble-rouser with a camera and a website—combined with a complacent media—can do.
But there was also a lesson for the left in these manufactured scandals. With ACORN, Breitbart may have lit the match, but a Democratic president and Democrat-controlled Congress sat by and watched (or even worsened the situation) as the flames grew. Many progressive organizations and so-called allies similarly refused to help as ACORN burned to the ground. In the case of Sherrod, the NAACP condemned her remarks shortly after they were publicized. Perhaps if we had been as passionate and savvy about defending ourselves as Breitbart had been about attacking us, he wouldn't have been so successful.
I'm not suggesting that the left should go out and doctor videos of a Focus on the Family conference, but Breitbart at the very least did challenge the left to up its game, and perhaps journalists are now a bit more careful about amplifying a meme without checking their facts. I have no doubt that Daily Kos, TPM, and Think Progress (not to mention the Huffington Post, which he helped launch) sharpened their claws because Breitbart threw down the gauntlet.
As much a villain as Breitbart might have been to the left, he was far more of an iconoclast within the conservative movement than he is generally given credit for; he was a very public supporter of GOProud, the gay Republican organization, as well as immigration reform and other traditionally "liberal" causes. His penchant for bucking a trend might stem from having grown up a conservative in liberal-leaning Hollywood and feeling attacked for his differences. Unfortunately, Breitbart never realized how myopic and warped his perspective was. But being an underdog is something any liberal can sympathize with.
My thoughts and prayers are with his family, and my hope is that the progressive movement will be less susceptible to the Breitbarts of the future.