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Opinion: Mourning Breitbart the Man, Not the Pundit

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So many people are dying, it seems. Christopher Hitchens, just before Christmas. Whitney Houston, on the eve of the Grammy Awards. The brilliant and courageous war correspondent Anthony Shadid, last month. Wednesday, Davy Jones. You remember Davy Jones? Why, The Monkees, of course. How quickly we forget. 

These people have nothing in common, of course.  But for one thing:  They were all relatively young. 

So today, I stepped it up on the Stairmaster, at my gym, in an effort to avoid my own early demise.  As I did, yet another name flashed across the screen. 

Andrew Breitbart.  Conservative commentator.  Dead at 43. I stopped in my tracks.  This time I didn’t know what to say.

I’d had plenty of words for the others on my Twitter feed:  Davy Jones, “super-talented and underrated;” Whitney, a “tragic, from jump;” Hitchens a “brilliant writer, thinker and social critic whose death leaves a vacancy in our profession;” Anthony Shadid, a “pioneering journalist who reminds us of the risks reporters take every day to keep us informed.” 

But with the death of Andrew Breitbart, I didn’t know quite what to say.

Don’t mistake me.  I am no longer stunned by loss of life, however young the deceased. Fifteen years of reporting on crime and violence has inured me to that. Any remaining vulnerability was wrenched away on 9/11, when I was dispatched to Ground Zero for ABC News.  I stayed on the story for weeks. I lost friends. Friends lost friends. And family. Many of them very young.

Still, Andrew’s death is dreadful.  That I knew him, knew something of his life, makes it sadder still. He is a father, a husband. There are four little children, of no particular political persuasion, who will be without his presence, his care, his guidance, his love, forever.  That is terrible, whatever we may think of his politics.

And I did think about his politics.  I didn’t like  his brand of politics or the way he practiced it.

I often wondered just what Andrew was doing.  What was the point of it all.  For, it certainly was not civil discourse.  In a world that is complex and complicated he presented things a simple and absolute.  He was clearly gifted, talented, fiercely dedicated to his point of view.  And while I often shared his jumping off point – that the news media is broken – his fix for that dysfunction was to retaliate with propaganda of his own making – right-wing paranoid conspiracy theories.  

Like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and other ideologues who prowl the airways and World Wide Web, fueled by outrage at a democratic system that he perceived to be working against his white male privilege, Andrew would simply make up the facts he needed to support his outrageous theories when there was no substantiation for them.

 He happened to get it right with Anthony Weiner (the congressman had been sending salacious photographs to women online. At first, Weiner said that his Twitter account had been hacked. He later admitted his misbehavior and apologized to Breitbart).  But Breitbart was dead wrong his posting of a deceptively edited video purporting to show racist statements by Shirley Sherrod, then an obscure African American official in the Obama Administration. Sherrod, whose story actually illustrated how she overcame feelings of racism to help a white farmer save his land, was fired.  Embarrassed, the Agriculture Department offered her a new job.  Sherrod sued Breitbart for defamation and the case is ongoing.  (Now, it seems, Sherrod will have to proceed, if at all, against his estate.)

But I also saw another side of Andrew.  The so-called Green Room, in media organizations, is a funny place.  People get along there, whatever their political point of view.  They are civil, at least, and more often than not, friendly.  I saw Andrew there many times, over the years, most often at Fox, but elsewhere, too.  He was an extreme extrovert, always openhanded, gregarious before an appearance.  Then, he would be cutting, biting, ferocious on the air.  Which may say as much about our little game of political punditry as it does about Andrew Breitbart.