In life, Andrew Breitbart was the conservative blogger and provocateur whose sometimes controversial efforts against his ideological adversaries, both real and imagined, made him one of the most polarizing figures on the contemporary political scene.
In death, however, it was clear Breitbart had earned the respect not just of conservatives but of some progressives, too. The latter may have disagreed with his political views and tactics, but they admired his energy and the entrepreneurial verve with which he waged his campaign.
That doesn't mean that some on the other end of the political spectrum from Breitbart didn't find it difficult to express charity after hearing of the tragedy of a suddenly dead father leaving behind a wife and four young children. Breitbart's grenade-throwing style of political combat made it hard for some to forgive. That chilly sentiment wasn't uniform, however.
Breitbart, who had turned only 43 a month ago, may have seemed like a creature of the Internet age. But he was only the latest in a long line of American polemicists extending back to the nation's early history.
In his way, Breitbart was a hyperactive Web reinterpretation of the pre-Revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine. Or of Philip Freneau, who, as a Philadelphia journalist during the early American republic, was an anti-Federalist propagandist for then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
Breitbart's influence on the great debates of his day obviously wasn't close to being in the same league as Paine's was in his. But his impact was undeniable and will be remembered for some time.
At the top of his greatest hits, so to speak, would be his contribution to the takedown of ACORN, the now defunct network of groups that advocated for low-income Americans, whose demise Breitbart hastened.
It was Breitbart who posted on his website James O'Keefe's hidden-camera video of workers for ACORN appearing to allegedly abet a faux pimp and prostitute.
Also near the top of the list would be Breitbart's role in the Anthony Weiner affair. The blogger's possession of suggestive photos that the married then-congressman sent to women via Twitter eventually forced Weiner to resign from Congress.
But Breitbart will also be remembered for an ends-justify-the-means approach that sometimes misfired.
Never did that seem truer than in the Shirley Sherrod case, in which Breitbart edited a video of the then-Obama administration Agriculture Department official to make it appear she had told an audience of fellow African-Americans that she once discriminated against a white farmer seeking federal help and was proud of it.
When the full version of the video emerged after Sherrod was forced out of her job, however, it showed that she had actually told the audience she had helped the white farmer despite conflicted feelings from all the discrimination she and other Southern blacks had experienced.
The moral of her story was that discrimination was wrong — exactly the opposite of what Breitbart's edited version of Sherrod conveyed. Sherrod sued Breitbart, who never apologized for the incident.
Sherrod, on Thursday, issued a succinct statement that belied all the emotions stirred up by her virtual encounter with Breitbart. The statement, as it appeared on CNN, said:
"The news of Mr. Breitbart's death came as a surprise to me when I was informed of it this morning. My prayers go out to Mr. Breitbart's family as they cope during this very difficult time."
Breitbart got his start in the world of of partisan propaganda/journalism with Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report, then worked with Arianna Huffington; he first met her when she a conservative. After her political transformation to a progressive, he helped her start the Huffington Post.
In an emailed response to a request from NPR for reaction, Arianna Huffington wrote:
"... I was asked many times this morning for my thoughts on what Andrew meant to the political world, but all I can think of at the moment is what Andrew meant to me as a friend, starting from when we worked together — his passion, his exuberance, his fearlessness. And above all, what I'm thinking of at the moment is his amazing wife Susie and their four beautiful young children. My love and thoughts are with them right now."
While he was a fierce, no-holds-barred partisan for his side, that didn't stop liberals from paying their respects Thursday. It was noted that even though he was a conservative, he publicly supported gay rights. Lisa Derrick, who knew Breitbart and whose LA FIGA blog is part of the FireDogLake community of blogs, wrote:
"Andrew was an instigator, a rabblerouser and while our politics so did not line up, he became an unlikely ally of the LGBT community last year when [he] told a CPAC audience"
" 'If being conservative means rejecting gay conservatives because they are gay, then fine, I'm not a conservative.'
"He later resigned from the board of GOProud over allegations that the group's leaders, Christopher Barron and Jimmy LaSalvia, had outed an official working with Rick Perry's presidential campaign.
"I disagreed with a lot of what he did, but I appreciated that he existed, if only to be a huge counter balance ..."
But while some on the left, like Derrick, noted the loss of someone they saw as a worthy opponent, conservatives mourned the loss of a blogger-activist whom many on the right viewed as a brash champion for their causes.
Erick Erickson wrote on RedState.org:
"What I admired most about Andrew was his willingness to be the lightning rod despite criticism from both the left and the right. He was the lightening rod and when lightening struck, Andrew used the brilliant flash of light to direct everyone's attention to precisely what he wanted them to see. He was a master at it. The attention he garnered was never about getting attention for himself, but using the attention to tell the story and share the news he wanted told and shared."
The Republican presidential candidates weighed in as well. Mitt Romney tweeted:
"Ann and I are deeply saddened by the passing of @AndrewBreitbart: brilliant entrepreneur, fearless conservative, loving husband and father"
Rick Santorum told reporters:
"He will be, what a huge loss ... for our country and certainly for the conservative movement and my prayers go out to his family. I'm really sorry to hear it."
Breitbart was an early presence at Tea Party rallies nationwide, and there was a profound sense of loss in that movement.
NPR's Neda Ulaby interviewed Jenny Martin for Thursday's All Things Considered. Asked for the reaction of Tea Party activists to the news of Breitbart's death, Martin said:
MARTIN: "They feel like lost a true patriot and they lost a fighter who was willing to fight fearlessly for our core values of our country. ... He set the tone for a lot of the political discussions that happen today. He created news. He broke news. His voice will be missed."
In May 2010, The New Yorker ran a profile of Breitbart by Rebecca Mead that is well worth reading to gain a sense of the suspicions he harbored about liberal conspiracies and how he went from aimless young man to committed conservative firebrand.
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