I’m a little conflicted. Andrew Breitbart died this week of a heart attack. He was 43. And I’d be lying if I told you I am, in any way, sad about it. He’s the provocateur who made his living by dealing in the same slimy “politics of personal destruction” made famous by Lee Atwater and now practiced by the likes of Keith Olbermann and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher…
It’s an interesting emotion when someone dies who we don’t like, isn’t it? It’s taboo to speak ill of the dead. And yet we can’t help but smile, even just a little, when they’re gone. I’m sure there will be some toasts to my dead ass by more than a few gleeful revelers.
But I am going to refrain from calling Breitbart a “duplicitous prick” or a “villain” or allege that he “destroyed lives.” Yet this is exactly how Breitbart described Ted Kennedy upon learning of his passing.
Honestly I wouldn’t have given a single thought to Breitbart’s death but for the fact that it happened during the same week I am reading a book about Lee Atwater (Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater) and the same day that Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown student Sandra Fluke a “slut.”
Andrew Breitbart was a brilliant media manipulator. He rose to prominence on the backs of people like Shirley Sherrod and Anthony Weiner. In the Sherrod episode, Breitbart published a video of the USDA official which appeared to show her making a racist comment about a white farmer. Sherrod was forced to resign in disgrace before it was shown that the video was heavily edited and taken grossly out of context. But the damage was done.
The man largely credited as the Godfather of abusive ad hominem attacks, was Lee Atwater. Atwater was a brilliant campaign strategist who ran George H. W. Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign. He is the man responsible for the Willie Horton ad which effectively sunk the Dukakis candidacy.
I loved it at the time. I thought Dukakis was a horrible candidate and I hoped Bush would continue to carry the Reagan mantle. So I was happy to revel in the mud that slimed Dukakis. But that was a figurative lifetime ago for me, and a literal lifetime ago for Atwater. He died of a brain tumor in 1991 at the age of 41 and just two and a half years after Bush was elected President.
Before he died, Atwater had a conversion. He wrote letters from his deathbed to many of the people he vilified. He wrote:
”My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood…. It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.”
I don’t believe we will see such a conversion from Rush Limbaugh. His vile, contemptible style generates millions in advertising dollars. His listeners number in the millions as well. And I used to be one. I’m ashamed to say that I cheered him on during the Clarence Thomas/ Anita Hill spectacle and for a few years thereafter. I can’t believe I allowed myself to listen to his hateful tripe.
This week he branded Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for this statement she made in front of a Congressional committee about contraception. Read/watch it and tell me what you think. He even said that if taxpayers are forced to pay for her contraception, she should have to make a sex tape for all of us to watch. Here it is (the broadcast by Limbaugh, not the sex tape).
Now you and I can disagree on the subject of contraception, but if I tell you my daughter is taking the pill and you call her a “slut”, you’ll be walking out of there with a broken jaw.
Who endorses this putrid garbage?
It’s too late to see whether Andrew Breitbart would have ever experienced a conversion. He’ll never get the chance.
So what is my takeaway here? I’m not sure. My better self wants to find the higher ground. But it’s not easy. I wish I could summon the courage to say something like:
“The attack on [Shirley Sherrod] has opened up an avalanche of discussion on a tabooed subject-race. It is a blessing to be an instrument of God’s grace.”
Those are the words of Charles Sherrod, Shirley’s husband, less than a month after she was fired. Atwater hoped for “heart” and “brotherhood”. That’s as good an example as I could find.