A Year Later

03.02.13

At Bars Nationwide, Conservatives Raise a Glass to Andrew Breitbart

Across America, conservatives gathered to raise glasses to a gifted peddler of righteous indignation. Plus: Read David Frum’s Breitbart obituary.

Andrew Breitbart, the ubiquitous conservative political provocateur died a year ago this Friday, which also happened to be the day that the sequester took effect—an irony he might have appreciated. In tribute, conservatives held commemorations at bars nationwide, in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, and Miami. Ben Jacobs was there in D.C., where the group ended up sharing a bar with New York Times reporters, and Laura Isensee was at the very intimate gathering in Houston. Their dispatches are here.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA— Even after his death, Andrew Breitbart couldn’t escape the mainstream media.

On the one-year anniversary of the night that the bomb-throwing right-wing blogger collapsed of a heart attack, a memorial gathering in his honor was held in the downstairs room at PJ Clarke’s bar in Washington D.C., three blocks from the White House. It seemed the safest place to gather: the office building above is filled with conservative tenants, including a Republican media consulting group and the Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing online publication. The room itself even seemed naturally Republican, hidden by a sliding door that had to be operated by the bar’s staff and with wood-paneled walls covered with pictures of relatively obscure 19th-century presidents. But even there, Breitbart’s journalistic adversaries couldn’t be escaped.

The memorial was double booked with a goodbye party that The New York Times’s Washington bureau was holding for Jeff Zeleny, its national political correspondent who’s about to leave for ABC News.

The event had been organized via Facebook just a week before by three young Breitbart acolytes who had only met the conservative blogger a handful of times combined: Lyndsey Fifield, who does communications for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Lachlan Markay of the Washington Free Beacon, and Gabriel Malor of the right-wing blog Ace of Spades. Fifield excitedly mentioned that Breitbart once came to a party she threw at her aunt and uncle’s house in New Orleans during the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. Markay said he didn’t really know Breitbart that well.

The room had about 50 people at any given time, most of whom, like the organizers of the event, had barely met the Los Angeles–based blogger they were mourning. Andrew Stiles, a journalist for the National Review, who entered wearing a buttoned-down shirt and a UNC baseball cap, had met Breitbart once, at a party in passing on Capitol Hill. “He was very ADD,” Stiles reminisced, and didn’t seem to have much time to talk as he bounced from conversation to conversation. Stiles shook his head: “He wouldn’t remember me.”

Though the attendees didn’t know the man, they were mindful of his legacy. Jimmy LaSalvia, the head of GOProud and a leading LGBT activist in the Republican Party told me glowingly about how much Breitbart had done for his group. “He didn’t impose any litmus test” said LaSalvia. “If you were with us [the conservative movement], you were with us.” This legacy was emphasized by the fact that Malor, one of the three hosts, was a prominent conservative advocate for same-sex marriage as well.

But, for all the talk about Breitbart’s ideological efforts for big-tent conservatism, he is still best known for journalistic career that came in for slightly more mixed reviews. Markay noted how Breitbart played an important role helping in “sorting out how advocacy journalism works in practice.” While right-leaning journals had traditionally been filled with lots of opinion, there was relatively little reporting before Breitbart, who helped expose Anthony Weiner’s Twitter sex scandal (and then famously gloried in Weiner’s downfall by crashing the press conference the former congressman held to announce his resignation).

The problem for Breitbart’s legacy is that the memorial happened only days after perhaps the biggest recent failure in conservative advocacy journalism, when his namesake website, Breitbart.com falsely reported that now-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had ties to a fake group called “Friends of Hamas.” The result spurred a backlash that helped Hagel. As Markay mournfully noted, it wasn’t just bad journalism, “it was counter-productive.”

At one point, Markay, along with Fifield and Malor, gathered at the top of the stairs leading down to the downstairs room, to deliver a tribute to Breitbart while thanking attendees for coming and urging donations to a college fund for his four orphaned children. At The New York Times party in the back of the room, there was some confusion as they heard glasses clinking and shushing from the other side of the portable barrier separating the two groups. “It’s just the Breitbart people,” someone explained.

“It’s just the Breitbart people,” someone explained.

Then, at the end of the short tribute to Breitbart, Fifield lifted her glass and asked everyone to join in a toast to the late conservative blogger’s memory.

The room of conservatives did, along with one of the Times reporters, who loudly and sardonically lifted his glass “To Andrew.”  One of his colleagues joined him silently while the rest stood about bashfully, waiting for their party to resume and their waitress to bring another round of drinks. They didn’t particularly want to talk about Breitbart or much of anything else, insisting “we’re just here to have drinks.”

HOUSTON—At a Tex-Mex restaurant 20 miles north of downtown, half a dozen people—five women, and one man—gathered to remember Andrew Breitbart on the first anniversary of his death.

“We’re his suburban Annie Oakleys,” said Michelle Lancaster, proudly claiming the Breitbart epithet.

Most of them in small assembly were bloggers or social-media activists who know each other from Twitter and brag 100,000 people in their digital networks combined. All were under the age 50.

While it was smaller than the packed memorial in central Houston last year for Breitbart after he died suddenly, the event was joined in spirit by others across the country.

Melissa Clouthier, a conservative blogger and mom who knew Breitbart personally, organized the event. (They expected about 15 people, but blamed Friday-night traffic in the sprawling city for cramping the size.)

“He was just starting to reach the apex of his career. He was just on that edge,” Clouthier said. “It’s a year later and I still can’t believe it.”

At Pappasito’s Cantina, where country music played and they noshed on tortilla chips and salsa, the group reminisced about Breitbart not as the controversial bombastic blogger but as someone who inspired and encouraged them, whom most had met.

“This is right after he said, ‘I love Texas,’” said Michelle Lancaster, holding up a cellphone picture of herself with Breitbart.

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Michelle Lancaster, at Pappasito’s Cantina in Houston, holding up a cellphone picture of herself with Andrew Breitbart. (Laura Isensee)

Lancaster, an insurance agent, had met Breitbart at the Smart Girls conference in St. Louis two years ago. (The political action group aims to bring “fiscally independent women into the political process,” according to its website.)

Hispanic and conservative, Lancaster said she usually held back at political events. Then Breitbart urged her to speak up. “I think you should be a citizen journalist,” she recounted him telling her.

Now she’s a blogger and ran for and won the precinct judgeship in her neighborhood in Cypress, and inspired another conservative blogger to run for a similar seat. Lancaster, a mom of two 20-somethings and a 13-year-old, carries a business card with her website, email, and Twitter handle (though she gave up social media for Lent). The card's tagline is “Big Hair. Big Passion. Chancla Power.” Friday night she wore her red “Remember Breitbart” T-shirt under her white vest.

She and others there believe Breitbart’s mission lives on.

“I think we’ve all tried to fill it in our own ways,” Lancaster said. “We have to keep on with the truth.”

“Andrew’s mission was taking on the slanted media,” said Felicia Cravens, one of the founders of the Tea Party in Houston and an after-school drama teacher in Katy, Texas. “We all have different fronts we’re fighting on now … For me, my thing has always been training people to do whatever their cause may be.”

Cravens believes Breitbart wouldn’t have wanted just one person to take his spot on the national stage: “He would want as many people to stand up and say what we feel is important.”

“He wanted everybody to pick up their piece and fight the war,” added DeAnn Irby, who works as a recruiter in the oil and gas industry.

Before their dinner of fajitas, enchiladas, and quesadillas, the group strategized about bringing more Hispanics into the conservative fold; compared the looming automatic federal spending cuts to taking a few French fries from a McDonald’s Happy Meal that had been supersized; talked about the hardworking Log Cabin Republicans in the Houston area; and planned for an upcoming blogger party at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC.

And, of course, they talked about Breitbart and their favorite memories of him.

For Irby, it was when he took over Rep. Anthony Weiner’s press conference that was supposed to feature the New York congressman amid Weiner’s sexting scandal and accusations Breitbart had hacked his Twitter account.

“That was quintessential Breitbart,” Irby said, sipping on a “Wave,” a frozen margarita swirled with sangria.

Cravens pulled out her autographed Breitbart book, Righteous Indignation. It bears a unique signature because Breitbart had spilled red wine all over the book. “Look what I did to your book!,” Breitbart had scrawled. The pages are still stained red.