David Frum

03.02.13

Breitbart: Second Thoughts

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images ()

One year after the death of Andrew Breitbart, I am hearing again from many of his admirers, protesting the obituary I wrote at the time. Mickey Kaus yesterday retweeted a piece of his own from 2012, the bulk of which constitutes a reply to me.

Rereading my obituary a year later, I wouldn't change a word of it. My obituary was respectful of the sorrow of Breitbart's family and friends. It paid due tribute to his abilities and qualities. And otherwise: it told the truth about a man who was an important figure of his times, who did shape the world we live in.

I'll concede that there are some truths it is better not to mention at the hour of death. Did the war hero drink too much in his declining years? Did the great surgeon from time to time betray his wife? Frailties like that seem inessential when it comes time to review a whole lifetime's contributions.

But when the Reverend Al Sharpton passes on, must we praise him as a humble man of God? Should the future obituarist of Donald Rumsfeld describe the Iraq war as a triumph to spare the feelings of the Rumsfeld family? If the hour of a public person's death is not the time to assess that public person's public record, when is the time?

The demand for exquisite deference to sensitivities comes especially odd from Breitbart's admirers, who fiercely repudiate any such code for themselves.

Some of those Breitbart admirers will counter: "But what about the code you, David, urge? You call for less extremism and more civility - yet you said negative things about Breitbart on the day of his death."

If the hour of a public person's death is not the time to assess that public person's public record, when is the time?

I'll repost the piece in full below, so readers can judge for themselves whether the piece was inappropriate.

Yet I will say this one thing:

In any political conflict between extremists and non-extremists, the non-extremists start with one serious disadvantage. They tend to be conflict-averse. Moderate-minded people tend naturally to be people of moderate temperament. When they encounter rage, hate, and paranoia, they flinch. Extremists, on the other hand, delight in conflict. Simply by being louder and nastier, they bully the non-extremists into silence, acquiescence, or exit. Which happens to be the recent history of the Republican party.

What America needs now, and what the Republican party most especially needs, are moderate-minded people who are also tough-minded - who won't be shrieked down and who won't be intimidated. "Civility" cannot mean: you yell, I yield. Conservatives deplore those old-line 1960s liberals who shriveled up when challenged by student radicals and Black Power militants. Well, now it's happening in our house, and it is we who are being tested: Do we dare confront our own radicals? It's not enough to have greater wisdom, greater tolerance, and greater patriotism if you don't also muster courage, endurance, and will to win. Otherwise, you're playing by Weimar rules.

“Of the dead, speak nothing but what is good.”

It’s an ancient rule and a wise one, but one that does not do justice to the life and career of Andrew Breitbart, dead today aged 43.

It is impossible to speak nothing of a man who traced such a spectacular course through the contemporary media.

But to speak only “good” of Andrew Breitbart would be to miss the story and indeed to misunderstand the man.

The good was there. Breitbart was by all accounts generous with time and advice, a loving husband and father, and a loyal friend. One of those friends, Arianna Huffington, wrote today: “All I can think is what Andrew meant to me as a friend … his passion, his exuberance, his fearlessness." Breitbart was unquestionably passionate and was exuberant. If by “fearless” you mean perpetually eager for confrontation, then yes he was fearless too, although in a very particular way. Nobody would ever describe Andrew Breitbart as a man of “quiet courage.”

He delighted in the enraged outburst, the shouted insult, the videotaped jab of a finger into an opponent’s chest.

Andrew Breitbart was an innovator and inventor, a man who as much as any shaped the media culture of the Internet age. He was present at the creation of the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, and of course his own popular sites.

Yet perhaps Breitbart’s most consequential innovation was his invention of a new kind of culture war. Until recently, the phrase “culture war” mainly described the political struggle over religion and sexuality. When Pat Buchanan declared a “culture war” from the rostrum of the Republican convention in 1992, he specifically cited abortion, gay rights, pornography, prayer in schools, and women in combat as the outstanding issues.

Those were not the issues that much interested Andrew Breitbart. On gay rights, he held almost the polar opposite view of Buchanan’s in 1992.

In fact, it’s hard even to use the word “issues” in connection with Andrew Breitbart. He may have used the words “left” and “right,” but it’s hard to imagine what he ever meant by those words. He waged a culture war minus the “culture,” as a pure struggle between personalities. Hence his intense focus on President Obama: only by hating a particular political man could Breitbart bring any order to his fundamentally apolitical emotions.

Because President Obama was black, and because Breitbart believed in using every and any weapon at hand, Breitbart’s politics did inevitably become racially coded. Breitbart’s memory will always be linked to his defamation of Shirley Sherrod and his attempt to make a national scandal out of back payments to black farmers: the story he always called “Pigford” with self-conscious resonance.

Yet it is wrong to see Breitbart as racially motivated. Had Breitbart decided he hated a politician whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, Breitbart would have been just as delighted to attack that politician with a different set of codes. The attack was everything, the details nothing.

This indifference to detail suffused all of Breitbart’s work, and may indeed be his most important and lasting legacy. Breitbart sometimes got stories right (Anthony Weiner). More often he got them wrong (Sherrod). He did not much care either way. Just as all is fair in a shooting war, so manipulation and deception are legitimate tools in a culture war. Breitbart used those tools without qualm or regret, and he inspired a cohort of young conservative journalists to do likewise.

In time, Andrew Breitbart might have aged into greater self-control and a higher concept of public service. Premature death deprived him of the chance at redemption often sought and sometimes found by people who have done wrong in their lives and work.

And this is where it becomes difficult to honor the Roman injunction to speak no ill of the dead. It’s difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous. When one of the leading media figures of the day achieves his success by his giddy disdain for truth and fairness—when one of our leading political figures offers to his admirers a politics inflamed by rage and devoid of ideas—how to withhold a profoundly negative judgment on his life and career?

Especially when that career was so representative of his times?

We live in a time of political and media demagoguery unparalleled since the 19th century. Many of our most important public figures have gained their influence and power by inciting and exploiting the ugliest of passions—by manipulating fears and prejudices—by serving up falsehoods as reported truth. In time these figures will one by one die. What are we to say of this cohort, this group, this generation? That their mothers loved them? That their families are bereaved? That their fans admired them and their employees treated generously by them? Public figures are inescapably judged by their public actions. When those public actions are poisonous, the obituary cannot be pleasant reading.