(Originally published on March 1, 2012. Today is the second anniversary of Andrew’s death. I still haven’t made myself delete his cell number from iPhone.)
I’d like to tell you the story of a great man. In his youth, he was something of a dilettante. He attended the right schools, enjoyed life, and didn’t think much beyond the pleasures it could offer him. And then he found a cause. A glorious and important cause that would deliver people from being enslaved to hostile societies and big governments. Once he found his calling, he pursued it with passion. He wrote prolifically, traveled widely and, most importantly, he thought outside of the box. He took the vague, inchoate dreams that other men had and, because of his drive and vision, made those dreams a reality.
Living life so hard and fast took its toll, though. If, as the Bible says, God allots a specific span of years to a man, it’s entirely possible that a unique man can compress those years into a much shorter period of time, in order that he can do what he needs to do, when he needs to do it. And then this man, having opened wide the door for others dies, at 44 or maybe at 43.
I am, of course, talking about two men, one of whom died in 1904, two months after having turned 44, and one of whom died a little after midnight today, having just turned 43 just a month ago. The arc of their life stories, however, has a remarkable similarity, and we would do well to heed and honor that similarity.
The man who died on July 3, 1904, was Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism and, therefore, the rightful father of the State of Israel. Herzl was born in 1860 into a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family living in Hungary. He was fairly uninterested in his Jewish heritage. He didn’t disavow it; he just didn’t care. He was a man of letters, earning a law degree, but working as a journalist. Life was good, and really that was all.
And then the Dreyfus Affair exploded in France in the early 1890s. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an innocuous member of the French military who was framed for treason. Most everyone knew that he was not the culprit but that, instead, the real malfeasor was another officer. Following an orgy of antisemitic invective, Dreyfus was convicted on no evidence whatsoever, and send to Devil’s Island where he suffered five years of inhumane conditions. Moral people in France were outraged at this travesty, and Emile Zola shook the world with his famous “J’accuse” letter published in a Parisian paper.
For Herzl, the Dreyfus Affair was an epiphany. Antisemitism, he realized, was not a fossilized relic of the Middle Ages. It was an infection festering under modern civilization, and could break out at any time. Jews would never be safe in Europe. They needed a place to call their own. Herzl’s genius was that he took the European Jews’ abstract longing for a “next year in Jerusalem,” and turned it into a concrete, do-able idea. Everyone knew that the Biblical Jewish nation had spanned hundreds of years in the Holy Land, and that Jews also had an unbreakable living presence in the Holy Land for thousands of years, from Biblical times to Herzl’s own times. Herzl took this to the next level: Why shouldn’t present-day Jews have their own land, a place where they were free from control and harassment at the hands of powerful, antisemitic governments?
Herzl was transformed. His life had meaning and purpose and he lived every remaining moment with passion and energy. He wrote, he traveled, he lectured. He was a happy warrior. He’d broken free of the thousand-year paradigm that had trapped Jews in Europe, and created a new paradigm, one that saw the Jews as a free people in their own land. But that kind of passion and fury takes its toll. Herzl was a blazing comet, but comets, for all that they burn brightly, vanish too quickly. In 1904, Herzl’s great heart gave out. He died 44 years before his dream was realized. But here’s the important thing: His dream was realized. Herzl’s life mattered. His vision burned itself into the hearts of millions of others and resulted in the creation of one of the most dynamic — and free — states in the world.
One doesn’t have to work very hard to see the parallels between Herzl’s life and Andrew Breitbart’s. As Breitbart freely admits in his delightful Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World!, his early life was completely ordinary. He was a knee-jerk Jewish liberal who grew up in Los Angeles without thinking much about politics beyond parroting the views that surrounded him in his liberal social and educational enclaves.
For Herzl, the Dreyfus Affair was the epiphany that exploded his world assumptions and forced him to look a grave problem in the world and device a solution. For Andrew Breitbart, his Rubicon was the Clarence Thomas hearings. As did Herzl, he realized that his society had a big problem — this time with the core problem being the Democrat party that had long been his ideological home — and he started thinking about solutions to this problem.
In the last few years, Andrew’s years of cogitation, combined with his happy warrior personality, resulted in a completely new paradigm. Rather than adopting the defensive stance that is the norm for the Republican party when dealing with attacks from the Left, Andrew took the war onto the Left’s own soil.
Working with the equally innovative James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, Breitbart pretty much destroyed ACORN, a hard-Left, well-funded group that masqueraded as a meek and mild social welfare concern. He took the war to the Left’s own turf when Leftists contended that protesters at a Tea Party hurled racist epithets at Black politicians and activists. Andrew offered $100,000 to anyone who could provide proof that such conduct took place. Despite the plethora of recording devices at the scene, no Leftist ever stepped forward to claim the money. And of course, Breitbart brought down Anthony Weiner, giving notice to Democrats everywhere that the “gentleman’s agreement” that the media had with Democrats, an agreement that had successfully protected Kennedy and that tried so hard to protect Bill Clinton, no longer existed.
Andrew changed the paradigm. He showed that, for conservatives, the fight doesn’t begin and end with stating ideas and hoping that the public figures out that conservative ideas are better. That might have worked in a pre-MTV world, but in a world with a short attention span, and a Leftist lock on media and education, it’s just not enough to say that one has a better idea. To give ideas traction today, we need to work actively to show that the opposing party has a much worse idea — and that it’s worse, not only at a purely ideological level, but at a functional level. On the ground, Leftist ideas are a breeding ground for poverty, racism, corruption, and immorality. It’s out there. Andrew knew it, and Andrew showed it.
Andrew also believed in redemption. After all, like so many of us on the Right, Andrew started out as a liberal. He loved fighting the hard-core Leftists, but he firmly believed that, by fighting them, he could bring them into the light. And more than that, he believed that he could rouse the sheeples out there, the ones who are as we once were — Leftists by default rather than by conviction — and turn them into true Patriots who love and support the American dream, beginning with the Constitution.
RIP, Andrew Breitbart. Your short time here was not wasted. Just as with Theodor Herzl, your dream, your vision, and your drive will live on.