Correction appended: March 30, 2010.
Andrew Breitbart sits in an Aeron chair at an iMac computer gazing out the sliding glass door of his Los Angeles home office. On the patio, a hula hoop and a portable basketball rim await his children's return from school. Breitbart, 41, dressed on this late-winter day in his standard work uniform of a dirty oxford-cloth shirt and grungy khaki shorts, looks more like a surf bum than one of the most divisive figures in America's political and culture wars. Then his BlackBerry rings.
The woman at the other end of the line, conservative fulminator Ann Coulter, is among Breitbart's staunchest allies, and they soon are engaged in a spirited attack on liberals. "Their entire structure is writhing in diseased agony on the side of the road, and they don't even realize it," Breitbart says. But the left isn't the only object of disdain. "I'm sick of this effete GOP nothing sandwich," he adds, growing more animated. "As long as everyone is so pristine and socially registered, we're going to lose." Shortly before signing off, Breitbart says, "The second I realized I liked being hated more than I liked being liked that's when the game began."
It's a game he plays extraordinarily well. Breitbart has become the Web's most combative conservative impresario part new-media mogul, part Barnumesque scamp. Last fall, he launched Big Government, the flagship of his wickedly right-of-center sites, which also include Big Hollywood, Big Journalism which described the House's March 21 passage of the health care reform bill as a "socialist putsch" and the news aggregators Breitbart.com and Breitbart.tv. On its first day of business, Big Government produced a scoop: undercover filmmakers James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles the would-be Borats of the right had shot videos that appeared to show workers at ACORN, a liberal organization that lobbies for affordable housing, offering tips on how to open a brothel. For Breitbart, the videos proved to be a gold mine, putting the left on the defensive and Big Government on the map. That the filmmakers were accused of entrapping their subjects and editing in footage of O'Keefe dressed as a pimp seemed almost beside the point.
The stunt gave Breitbart who like many online scribes had spent much of his professional life toiling in anonymity a public persona. In January, O'Keefe was arrested in New Orleans on charges of entering the offices of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu under false pretenses while preparing another undercover video. That only boosted Breitbart's profile. At the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville in February, Breitbart introduced the star speaker, Sarah Palin, and delivered a rousing jeremiad of his own. Assailing national reporters for portraying the movement as "racist and homophobic," he used the dais at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel to speak his version of truth to mainstream media power: "It's not your business model that sucks. It's you that sucks."
Breitbart perceives himself as a new-media David out to slay old-media Goliaths. As he sees it, the left exercises its power not via mastery of the issues but through control of the entertainment industry, print and television journalism and government agencies that set social policy. "Politics," he often says, "is downstream from culture. I want to change the cultural narrative." Thus the Big sites devote their energy less to trying to influence the legislative process in Washington than to attacking the institutions and people Breitbart believes dictate the American conversation. Recently, Big Hollywood has gone after Sesame Street for a musical number titled "We All Sing with the Same Voice" that, it alleges, contains "controversial political messages designed to promote multiculturalism." Big Government has targeted the Obama Administration's safe-schools czar, Kevin Jennings, for a reading list, compiled when he headed the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, that includes books depicting adolescent homosexual encounters.
Such cultural crusades might seem to appeal mostly to the far-right fringe, but Breitbart is tapping a deep reservoir of conservative dismay. Former Bush Administration official (and TIME contributor) David Frum says, "What matters to [conservatives] is not why the government is spending $15 million on this or that. What matters is a perception that hostile forces are invading your home, school and family. Those forces come in on TV and in newspapers. An enormous amount of what conservatism now does is media criticism."