James O’Keefe’s arrest at Senator Landrieu’s office sent his boss through the roof. Lloyd Grove talked with the right’s hottest web honcho about his liberal past (he wanted "to see the Reagan administration go down"), Hollywood loathing, and his own arrest ("I was given a field sobriety test in front of my fraternity house... with 300 people cheering me on").
What do you do if you’re a rising conservative Internet impresario and the biggest star in your stable has just been accused of attempted tampering with a U.S. senator’s phone lines?
If you’re Andrew Breitbart, you milk it for all it’s worth.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, the 41-year-old Breitbart mounted a full-throated defense of video prankster James O’Keefe III—who was nabbed by the FBI last week and charged with a felony carrying a possible $250,000 fine and a 10-year prison sentence after visiting the New Orleans office of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu.
Working himself into a lather of righteous indignation, Breitbart also lashed out at the “left media” that initially compared O’Keefe and three confederates to the Watergate burglars—never mind that Glenn Beck did the same thing.
“It’s been a crazy week,” Breitbart had begun. “I murdered a child on Tuesday.”
“James O’Keefe was in jail for 28 hours without an attorney, even though he asked for an attorney, and during that period of time the prosecutor leaked the criminal complaint to the press, which concocted the ‘Watergate wiretap’ narrative out of whole cloth,” Breitbart told me about his daredevil employee, who last September became the Ashton Kutcher of the right with his now-famous punking of the progressive community group ACORN. O’Keefe’s antics—in which he and a young woman videotaped themselves impersonating a pimp and a prostitute seeking business advice from ACORN officials—powered the launch of Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com (one of his five web sites) to instant success and notoriety. Today he pays O’Keefe what he calls “a fair salary” for the rights to his work.
“After talking to James I started to get the sense that this was an overindulgence of the press, which has a desire to rush to judgment, to destroy another subject that doesn’t comport with their sociopolitical worldview,” Breitbart said, insisting that he had no prior knowledge of O’Keefe’s videotaping of two cohorts allegedly dressed up as phone company technicians—apparently a stunt to shame Landrieu as a liar for claiming that her lines were jammed and constituents couldn’t get through to protest her “aye” vote on Obamacare.
“The media hate James O’Keefe!” Breitbart claimed. “The panty-bomber is to be granted greater rights in the left-media’s worldview. They use Council on Islamic Relations-approved language to describe those in custody. They demand that enemy combatants be given lawyers and constitutional protections—and James O’Keefe was afforded none of these. Not having an attorney and not being able to communicate with an attorney is bothersome, and 28 hours is a long time in which the prosecutor is framing an extravagant set of charges against him that are then leaked to the press for maximum impact. And, boy, did they get maximum impact!”
The 25-year-old O’Keefe, free on $10,000 bond and maintaining his innocence, is obviously in a world of hurt. Not Breitbart, though. He’s doing just fine.
“I have started three new group blogs in the past year and they’re all doing very well, and we are not in debt,” Breitbart crowed about his year-old site BigHollywood.com, his four-month-old BigGovernment.com and his just-launched BigJournalism.com—all providing conservative critiques of their respective beats. “We have lived within our means—I’ve always been methodical to the point of absurdity. We have 10 people working with us, all from their own homes. It is cost-effective and it also makes it more difficult for the Symbionese Liberation Army to kidnap us. I’m kidding. I apologize. This is how I am.”
After spending much of the 1990s manically monitoring the 24-7 news cycle for two ideologically opposite Internet phenoms—libertarian Matt Drudge (Breitbart used to call himself “Drudge’s bitch”) and liberal pundit Arianna Huffington (he helped launch Ariannaonline.com and Huffingtonpost.com)—he ventured out on his own. He started Breitbart.com, his wire-service aggregation site, in 2005, generating revenue through, as he put it, “advertising and bribes.” In 2007 he followed up with Breitbart.tv, a right-leaning audio-video aggregator, and today he’s got ideas for at least five more Web sites he’s hoping to launch in the next several years.
“My business model is to be slow on the grow and—up to this point—not take other people’s money,” he said, noting that he only recently acquired an equity partner, Los Angeles attorney Larry Solov—“the Felix to my Oscar,” who grew up next door to him in the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood. “I came up watching the dot-com boom, and every big entity I’ve ever seen proclaim greatness, and hire a bunch of people to do different things at the start, usually ends up on the dust heap of Internet history. My goal is never to hear someone say, ‘I went to Breitbart’s launch party and saw George Clinton and Funkadelic play.’”
In a wide-ranging conversation, the married father of four—and the proud son-in-law of former To Tell the Truth panelist and Wilhelm Reich acolyte Orson Bean (author of the early-‘70s Reichian sexual memoir "Me and the Orgone")—also discussed his metamorphosis from West L.A. liberal to in-your-face conservative; his white-hot outrage at Hollywood-liberal hypocrisy “and their obnoxious form of noblesse oblige”; and his own arrest and jailing years ago in New Orleans.
“It’s been a crazy week,” Breitbart had begun. “I murdered a child on Tuesday.” When I suggested he was being “cantankerous,” the word set Breitbart off on a tear. “I’m only cantankerous, typically, when I have to deal with the press and/or lefties. Other than that, I’m bizarrely jocular.…When people say, ‘Oh, he’s cantankerous,’ I think about actors on the left are allowed to say things and act that way and nobody is bringing out the soap and saying, ‘Wow, we need to wash their mouths out!’ I’m only cantankerous when I’m confronted. I’m a social justice conservative.”
Breitbart charts his ideological odyssey as a visceral reaction against the rich-liberal entitlement and political correctness he encountered from West L.A. to Washington, D.C. “I was a default secular-Jewish liberal when I graduated from college in 1991. I was a go-along to get-along guy. I liked political theater. I loved Abbie Hoffman. I went to D.C. when I was in high school for the Iran-Contra hearings, mostly wanting to see the Reagan administration go down. But my takeaway was, ‘Hey, isn’t that Morgan Fairchild sitting in the front row?’”
Breitbart’s radicalizing moment didn’t arrive until the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings in which Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was subjected to a grilling about sexual harassment allegations by a Judiciary Committee panel that included “lothario” Ted Kennedy.
“That was beneath contempt,” Breitbart recalled. “And I started to develop an absolute righteous anger when Clarence Thomas was sitting there, facing accusations that he harassed Anita Hill, not that he was accused of doing anything to women or Anita Hill that even came within a billion miles of what Ted Kennedy did—a white man of privilege whose behavior toward women was deplorable.” When Kennedy died last August, and was praised by liberals and conservatives alike, Breitbart couldn’t stop himself from calling the late lion of the Senate "a special pile of human excrement" among other vile epithets. Breitbart’s explanation? “I f--king hated that f--kface.”
He also started spewing rage at the Hollywood elite—especially since, as Breitbart believes, most of them don’t even mean what they say. “People come out to Hollywood not to do Shakespeare in the Park but to get rich and to be able to have sex with the best-looking people in the world. So what do they have to do? They have to please talent agents, casting directors and producers who tell them to come to a certain event for a certain candidate, and then they realize that it’s a social system that includes politics. They go, “Ohhh, I get it.’ A lot of it is posturing—a successful means of staying within the system.”
Lest anyone confuse Breitbart’s conservatism with mere contrariness or some willful impulse to Épater la bourgeoisie, he insisted:“I am grounded in my belief system. This is not a form of artistic rebellion, trust me.”
He deeply admires his wife Susie’s father, Orson Bean, a former black-listed Communist who today is a Christian conservative managing to enjoy a thriving acting career. “Orson and I have very similar politics. I’d say he has been the closest thing to a mentor that I’ve had in terms of understanding the intersection of culture and politics. He’s 81, and he’s a vibrant, vibrant, vibrant man.”
As for Breitbart’s own run-in with the law, it was measurably different from James O’Keefe’s. His account is worth reporting in full:
“New Orleans is about the last place in the world I would want to be arrested. I was arrested there when I was a student at Tulane. I was on a teal-green—this is embarrassing—Arrow 50 motor scooter and I got pulled over for driving with a second person on the back. It was the night of a fraternity party. I was 18 years old. I was given a field sobriety test in front of my fraternity house, Delta Tau Delta, with 300 people cheering me on. I was put in Central Lockup, given a breathalyzer test which I passed, but I spent the night in jail anyway. I’ve long feared that this would come out and stain my reputation. I regret the incident and I will not run for office. And I will never again own a motor vehicle of that color.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.