I’m writing this post with two things in mind. For starters, I’m one of dozens of people to pen a tribute to Andrew Breitbart, with whom I was privileged enough to meet and speak with on several occasions. With that, I know this write-up will get lost in cyberspace and join a slew of other items on the end of Breitbart’s wild life, but I think it’s important to note the impact he had on me and my former colleague/dear friend Matthew Boyle in our first year out of college and as professional journalists.
Several weeks ago, I attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in DC. Believe it or not, that was my idea of a vacation, or “nerdcation,” so to speak. I had just quit my job, and though I’d been applying for my current position at The Jane Dough, nothing was set in stone. After a week and a half of puttering around my apartment (that may not seem like a long time for you, but it felt like years to me), I was ready to head down to Washington, where I could reunite with friends and coworkers who helped me grow professionally and personally right out of school. Though my political views have changed considerably over the past few years, CPAC seemed like the perfect event for me to attend, as it attracts much of my DC social circle each year. It also hosts some very dull speeches, so not all aspects of the three-day gathering are all that riveting.
In the media room, I remember being really underwhelmed by nearly all the speeches I heard, even that of Gingrich, who is known for saying silly things. But I lit up when Breitbart hopped on stage, not because I admired him (for the record I disagreed with a lot of what he preached), but because he was ridiculously amusing. After hours of boredom with the other speeches, here is what I tweeted about Breitbart: “I’m relieved @andrewbreitbart is speaking because he’s funny and entertaining. All the other speeches today were dull! #CPAC”
And you know what? He was funny and entertaining that day. He was the only speaker I could actually listen to. He was engaging, but I knew that already. I’d met him at the previous CPAC.
In fact, the 2011 conglomeration was the most memorable CPAC I’ve experienced yet. It was where I met my good friend Andrew Staroska. It’s because of Breitbart that Andrew and I even met. Andrew tells the story well in his own Breitbart tribute post:
“I was lucky enough to meet Andrew Breitbart at CPAC 2011. I was a young conservative who had just started this site. It was [finally the] day and I was wandering around the Media area at CPAC hoping to snag an interview with someone in hopes to jump start my site. Sure enough here comes Andrew Breitbart. I ran up to where he was and waited until some big reporters finished their questions and asked him if I could get a picture and interview him. Luckily enough for me he agreed to both. I was lucky enough to have met Laura Donovan and Matt Boyle of the Daily Caller who were following him who were nice enough to snap a picture of us. As the time finally came to interview Andrew he asked me a random yet funny question. He asked, “Can you walk backwards down an escalator?” I was confused yet said I think so, why? He said I have to go down stairs but if you can do that you can grab a quick interview. Sure enough I did and got my interview.”
Had Matt and I not been hanging around Breitbart that day, I never would have gotten to know Andrew, a person I have really grown to appreciate and value over the past year. It started when I called Matt at around 8:30 on Saturday, the final day of CPAC 2011. The call went straight to his voicemail, but we met up at CPAC before ten so I could shadow him on his interviews. At that point in time, I’d been a Daily Caller staffer for less than two months, so I was still of the intern mindset, as I’d interned at the office for three months before being offered full-time work. During the short period in which I’d interned at TheDC, Matt had taken me under his wing and given me tons of advice on interviewing, reporting, knowing where and how to look for stories, and writing news briefs. We’d reported on the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally together in the fall and had many conversations about how I could best move forward in journalism, so working with Matt was always very rewarding to me.
Unlike me, Matt was completely fearless in all his endeavors, so I knew it would be wise to study his techniques at CPAC. At around 10:30 a.m., we met with Breitbart for Matt’s scheduled interview and wound up spending about four hours with the guy. I followed both Matt and Breitbart all day, both exhausted from running to keep up with them and shocked by the number of people that approached Breitbart to chat. We were literally stopped every minute, and after a while, I was both frustrated by all the halting and slightly charmed. Breitbart took time to talk to anyone who approached him, and not all famous people would do that. It wasn’t until that day that I realized exactly how big Breitbart was (hence, his “Big” sites). Though peculiar, he was no diva, and the same cannot be said about his elitist arch rival Alec Baldwin.
At some point, Andrew Staroska, who would become my good friend, introduced himself to us and requested a photo with Breitbart. They had their interview as well, and Andrew and I got to talking soon after the aforementioned escalator incident took place (Andrew had to hustle just as much as I did to keep up with Breitbart) and decided to stay in touch. I’m so glad we did, and feel thankful that Breitbart was there that day to plant the seed.
Breitbart made me laugh several times that afternoon, mainly because he said whatever he wanted and had an uninhibited goofy streak. Towards the end of the day, he became restless and decided to pose on a random table in the middle of the conference hotel to see what would happen. I included the photo in my Daily Caller CPAC slideshow as well:
My caption, written last February, reads, “Conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart was more than just a CPAC attendee, he was a speaker, but this photo definitely belongs in our Superhero gallery. After all, approximately 20 people surrounded him after he posed like this, and only superheroes can attract crowds as rapidly as Breitbart did.”
On the last day of CPAC 2011, I tweeted that I’d been “following Matt and Breitbart around like a puppy for hours,” and soon after I posted that to my account, Breitbart followed me on Twitter. I didn’t think much of it but reached out to him later that year, when I decided to write a piece about Alec Baldwin making fun of him.
I emailed Breitbart at around 8 p.m. ET on June 9, only to receive a phone call from him shortly before midnight in DC. After leaping out of bed, I picked up my cell phone and saw a 310 area code number flash across my screen. Having lived in southern California, I recognized the area code as from the Los Angeles area, so I knew Breitbart was on the line.
That evening, we talked for a solid half hour. As Dave Weigel wrote earlier today, it was impossible to get Breitbart off the phone. He loved to talk, even when he was making zero sense. At first, I attributed his nonsensical remarks to the fact that he was talking to me on his blue tooth and on the freeway. The reception was fine, however, he was simply stringing words together with little meaning. A lot of what he said to me was incoherent, and I remember telling him several times, “I’m not sure I follow you,” but the things that were clear made for excellent article quotes.
One of the things I’ll never forget about Breitbart was his need for reporters to get their stories straight — at least with regards to articles about him. Twenty minutes after our first phone conservation that night, he called again to shed more light on the issue. The next morning, he called to tell me that I’d misquoted him.
“You said that I said that Alec Baldwin made a ‘blah’ comment about me. That’s inaccurate. I said it was a ‘bleh’ comment, not a ‘blah’ comment,” he said.
Upon laughing and asking if there was a difference between “blah” and “bleh,” (he said there was, by the way), I fixed the quote, and here’s how it reads now:
“I expect more from him, it’s sort of a bleh insult,” Breitbart said. “I guess that’s what happens when you don’t have a room of ’30 Rock’ writers working for you.”
To this day, I still don’t understand why “blah” and “bleh” aren’t interchangeable. I should have questioned Breitbart about it when I still had the opportunity, but for obvious reasons, I had more important things to ask. Was it odd of him to correct my bleh/blah error? At the time, I thought so, but now I see why he was so insistent on the change being made: If a story was being written about him, he wanted it done correctly. Though busy with all his “Big” sites and family, Breitbart almost always responded to media requests and was committed to getting the story straight no matter how small or insignificant it may have been.
The next time we corresponded was via Twitter, when I complained of being pale and sunburned as a result of my Irish heritage. He tweeted back that he was the same way: Pasty and Irish in California, where the sun is not kind to fair-skinned people like us. Though he was adopted, Breitbart was of Irish descent, so he knew my pains of being a misplaced Irish person in a state with year-round sunshine and dry heat. Sunlight is great for your soul, but not for your health if you’re anything like me or Breitbart.
For the first time in weeks, I slept nine hours last night. I’d gone to bed at 10 p.m. and woken up at seven. Though I felt well-rested, I woke up on edge. I’d dreamed that actor Mark Wahlberg died and that news of his passing had exploded on the Internet. As soon as I got up in the morning, I realized it hadn’t really happened, but checked my Twitter feed for big news items. The only thing I saw were tweets about Justin Bieber’s birthday, so I figured I’d gotten myself worked up over nothing. Of course, two hours later a colleague would inform me that Breitbart died.
I thought my coworker was joking at first, even as I clicked over to BigJournalism.com and saw their tribute to Breitbart as the lead story. After all, he’d just spoken at CPAC, where he famously shouted at “Occupy freaks” to “stop raping people.” Some had ventured to say that outrageous line would oust “don’t tase me, bro” as the laughingstock of American catchphrases, but I doubt that’s going to happen now.
It wasn’t until I scrolled to the bottom of the page and found no hint of sarcasm that I concluded it was real. Breitbart was gone, and the conservative movement everywhere had lost one of their big champions. Media writers lost a great source of material and entertainment. A wife became a widow. Worst of all, four children lost their father.
Though saddened for his kids, my priority this morning was Matt, who viewed Breitbart as a mentor and good friend. I immediately began mauling him with questions about his well-being via Google Chat, where he was only slightly responsive for a while, understandably so. We ended up talking some more in the afternoon, after he published a moving piece on Breitbart, and told me that there’s now a huge void in our political discussion. Someone is going to have to fill it, whether conservative or liberal. I have trouble believing that anyone, however, could be as funny or engaging as Breitbart, who was full of life.
Today, I was mostly concerned for Matt and Breitbart’s family, but I am also sad that a dynamic figure has departed us before his time. CPAC will never be the same again, and this loss will be felt among right-leaning folks for a very long time. I’m lucky to have corresponded with Breitbart and that he challenged me on my work, as innocuous as my initial error may have been, but mostly I’m happy to see that he had such a powerful effect on so many people. Love him or hate him, he made his mark in this world, and not everyone does.
When I wrote about CPAC 2012 a few weeks ago, I compared the experience to returning to high school after a long summer break. You’re thrilled to see old friends again…that is, if you have a thriving social life. If CPAC were a high school, I wrote, “Ann Coulter is Homecoming Queen, and Andrew Breitbart and Matt Lewis are on Homecoming court.” He was like the big man on campus who suddenly has to transfer schools or move across the country, and while the second coolest guy below him steps in and sort of works as replacement, he’ll never acquire quite the je ne sais quoi that his predecessor had. I have a feeling it will be a long time before the GOP community has another cool kid.