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The Merry Prankster
Breitbart was raised in Brentwood, on Los Angeles' privileged west side. The area is home to studio executives and producers, and the politics are Democratic. Breitbart was never fully comfortable in L.A.'s '80s social milieu. His parents are Midwestern Jews. (His father ran a Santa Monica steak house.) They saw life differently than the other kids' sophisticated dads and moms did. "My folks are from an older and very silent generation," Breitbart says. "My dad is as conservative as William F. Buckley was, but without the same presentation. He expressed his conservatism by working 16-hour days at the restaurant and never complaining."
By the time Breitbart entered the Brentwood School, an élite private academy, he was out of step with his classmates. "Andrew didn't fit the mold," says Larry Solov, a friend since childhood and now Breitbart's partner in the Big sites. "At Brentwood, you got A's and bought into a system set up to get you into an Ivy League college. Andrew got C's." Soon enough, Breitbart adopted the guise of skeptic and prankster, staging acts of subversion designed to win laughs and undermine the school's prevailing assumptions about wealth and meritocracy. It wouldn't be Harvard for this wiseacre. He was going to Tulane.
The South was a revelation for Breitbart. Southerners, whom he'd assumed from their depiction on TV to be Neanderthals, were warm and smart and less neurotic than Californians. The social life at Tulane was splendid. "I was a drunk," says Breitbart, who estimates he spent five nights a week at New Orleans bars with fellow Delta Tau Delta fraternity members. The classroom experience was less satisfying. "I didn't read Mark Twain," he says. "I read critical theorists. I graduated with a degree in nihilism and nothingness."
After returning to Los Angeles, Breitbart met Matt Drudge, founder of the conservative Drudge Report. It was the mid-1990s, and the Web was in its infancy. Breitbart went to work for Drudge and served as his legman for 15 years, learning how to excavate news items from databases and wire-service feeds. More than that, he adopted Drudge's contrarian worldview. "Matt rejects entrenched thinking," says Breitbart. If Drudge (who did not respond to messages seeking comment about his protégé) taught Breitbart a new way of seeing, it was another former employer, Arianna Huffington (who also refused to speak about the boss of Big), who whipped him into intellectual shape. Drudge introduced Breitbart to Huffington in the late 1990s, when she was a right-wing provocateur. He worked for her as a researcher. "I was a slacker," he says. "Writing, rhetoric, argument she demanded that I take a disciplined approach."
Breitbart helped launch the Huffington Post in 2005, but the marriage was destined to fail. Huffington had become a progressive. "It became impossible for me to work with Arianna's staff. They're liberals." But as he walked out the door, Breitbart experienced an epiphany.
The Big sites were born of Breitbart's realization that if Huffington could create a virtual salon for the left, he could create one for the right. "Most conservatives are individualists," he says. "For years, they've been pummeled by the collectivists who run the American media, Hollywood and Washington. The underground conservative movement that is now awakening is the ecosystem I've designed my sites to tap into."
Like some elements of the Tea Party movement, the Big sites can be crude. Also, Breitbart has shown an increasing propensity for bombast. While accepting an award at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington in late February for his role in breaking the ACORN story, he called New York Times reporter Kate Zernike "despicable" for writing in the Times's Caucus blog that a young CPAC speaker employed racial stereotypes during a speech critical of President Barack Obama. Two days later, Breitbart got into a verbal altercation with freelance writer Max Blumenthal. "You are the lowest life-form I have ever seen," Breitbart said. Blumenthal's putative offense had been to accuse O'Keefe in an article for Salon.com of attending a gathering that featured "white nationalists." All these outbursts were captured on cell-phone cameras wielded by members of competing camps. The videos went viral. The attack dog had become a mad dog.
While Breitbart is a polestar to many Tea Partyers, his excesses have the potential to cause the movement embarrassment. "The smarter conservatives who know Breitbart regard him affectionately," says a plugged-in Republican player, "but they think he's a little out of it. In another age, the Big sites would have been produced on a mimeograph machine. I'd call him the first neo-crank."