The command center of Andrew Breitbart's growing media empire is a suite of offices on Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles with the temporary feel of a campaign office. Only the computers seem firmly anchored.
On a recent summer day, just weeks after he posted video clips that touched off a national furor over race, Breitbart was swigging a bottled Frappuccino at his desk. In a Lacoste shirt, cargo shorts and laceless Converse All-Stars, he looked every bit the 41-year-old industry player he might have been, but for a political awakening that transformed this liberal, West Side child of privilege into a Hollywood-hating, mainstream-media-loathing conservative.
Breitbart, who has emerged as a star of the"tea party" movement, loves telling his apostate's tale in the italicized, frequently profane manner that is his trademark.
FOR THE RECORD:
Andrew Breitbart profile: An article in Friday's Section A about Andrew Breitbart, the man behind the Shirley Sherrod furor, said he was a freshman at Tulane University in 1986. He was a freshman in 1987.
Three epiphanies stand out:
1. The Black Dorm Moment. In 1986, Breitbart was a freshman at Tulane University when his friend Larry Solov, a sophomore at Stanford, happened to mention his school's African-American-themed residence hall.
"He just matter-of-factly said there was a black dorm and I was like, 'What the friggin' hell? Are you kidding me?'" said Breitbart, who is now business partners with Solov, a former corporate litigator. "And then, when I found out that it was not segregation in the sense of white people doing it, I was like, 'What are you talking about? Why aren't we working toward the colorblind ideal?'"
2. The Clarence Thomas Moment. In 1991, he was riveted by Supreme Court hearings in which the future associate justice was grilled by hostile Democrats.
"I remember the mainstream media telling me, 'Bad man! Really bad man! Sexual harassment bad man! Worst-bad-man-in-the-history-of-the-world bad man!" he told a Philadelphia tea party rally in July. "By the end of the week, I said, 'What did this man do? This man is an American hero!' ? It was a cavalcade of Caucasians asking this man about his very private video rentals!"
3. The Kurt Cobain Moment, around 1994. "In essence, the media was saying, 'Hey, see that guy, that's your generation's spokesman,'" said Breitbart, not a fan of grunge music's suicidal prince. "I was like, 'This guy seems like a world class [screw-up].' And I just started to have the awkwardly pedestrian revelation that my parents were right."
On the last day of July, Breitbart was walking along a downtown Philadelphia sidewalk, hungry and a little spacey from lack of sleep. On his own dime, he'd taken a red-eye from Los Angeles to appear at a tea party rally near the Liberty Bell. Twelve days earlier, on his Big Government website, Breitbart had posted an item that made him a household name.
The NAACP had accused the tea party of tolerating racism in its ranks, and Breitbart was looking for ammunition to fight back. The item he posted July 19 included two short video clips of a federal bureaucrat named Shirley Sherrod telling a Georgia chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People how she once gave short shrift to a white farmer.
In the rush to judgment that followed, the NAACP and the Obama administration condemned Sherrod, then looked foolish when it turned out that she had been a victim of deceptive editing: When the full video of Sherrod's 43-minute speech was released, it showed her to have transcended racial animus and become an advocate for poor people, regardless of color.
Sherrod called Breitbart a racist and vowed to sue.
Breitbart's misfire also tripped up some of his fellow conservatives: Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly apologized to Sherrod after calling for her resignation. Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Sherrod had been "smeared by right-wing media," and suggested she'd been "the victim of a high-tech lynching."
Breitbart defended himself with brio, but it was clear he had some regrets. "If I could do it all over again," he told Newsweek, "I should have waited for the whole video to get to me."
By the time he arrived in Philadelphia, though, he was in a fighting mood. His smoking gun was a quote from civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry, who had written on Politico that "tainting the tea party movement with racism is proving to be an effective strategy for Democrats."
Berry, reached in Washington a few days later, was not pleased to hear it. "He's a reprehensible guy who has just no excuse," she said. "Obviously with Shirley Sherrod, Breitbart should be ashamed of himself." (Breitbart shrugged it off. "She's a leftist," he said. "She's not going to like me.")