Whatever else he was — and he was many things — Andrew Breitbart was God’s gift to interviewers.
The guy was a walking polemic, a sound-bite machine, spewing out hot sentences of furious — and sometimes spurious — commentary and controversy. Breitbart was filled with an enormous passion for pugilistic public debate; he didn’t want to convince those who disagreed with him as much as he wanted to smite them, obliterate them, cast them into a civic Gehenna from which they would never return and where they would rot in a stinking pit of what he believed was liberal error.
It sounds ugly, and it often was.
But there was something else, and it’s what made him such good company and good copy for so many journalists: Andrew Breitbart was full of joy, too.
That’s the only word for it. He was full of mischief and he took an infectious delight at the whole human comedy, at himself not least. One minute, he’d be boiling over at you, red-faced and crazed with righteous indignation at the crimes you were perpetrating on behalf of the hated mainstream media, and in an instant a smile would start making its way across his ham face, and the smile would become a chuckle, and the chuckle a cackle, and you saw the genuine good cheer that was mixed in such a strange alloy with all that rage. I liked him very much.
But it must be said — if for no other reason than to keep the debate he loved going — that Breitbart vandalized American journalism and civic discourse, even as he helped to change them, hauling them into a hyperlinked, hyper-partisan future. Some of his shenanigans — the tarring of Shirley Sherrod, the attacks on Ted Kennedy the day he died, for instance — were downright deceptive or downright vicious. Scoring points was often more important than anything else to him, and his excesses stemmed from that zeal.
More important, Breitbart’s preferred mode of addressing his opponents — piling up the insults, pouring on the vitriol — was symptomatic of something gone wrong in our national conversation, a destructive force he fueled. More and more frequently, on the left and the right, especially online, the first recourse of debate seems to be hyperbolic hate, epithets aimed at silencing conversation rather than deepening it: “Fascist!” “Criminal!” “Pervert!” ”Nazi!” “Idiot!” “Racist!”
Conversation is the most important human practice; it’s what has made our pragmatic American politics work for two centuries. We can talk to one another. But that — that’s not talking; that’s performing. And Breitbart was a great performer, perfectly in sync with the tenor of these times –for better and worse.
That was one of his gifts. He got us, he got the national moment, he sensed who we were becoming and leapt out in front to lead a hugely entertaining dance of destruction — creative destruction, he’d argue, the destruction of what he deeply believed was mainstream media complacency and bias and liberal bigotry and corruption.
You may think him right, or wrong. But maybe, whatever one thinks of the substance of his politics, and the tactics he used to advance them, there is a gift for all of us in the example of Andrew Breitbart’s too-brief life: He danced his dance with joy.