The Master of Spectacle: Andrew Breitbart in Memoriam

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Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart speaks at a news conference prior to Representative Anthony Weiner in New York on June 6, 2011

Andrew Breitbart’s last big appearance in Washington took place a few weeks ago, outside a Marriott hotel where conservative activists had gathered. Protesters from the local Occupy movement were laying siege in the parking lot, and Breitbart started to scream at them. “Behave yourself,” he began, before moving on to more incendiary language. “You are freaks and animals … Stop raping the people, you freaks. You filthy freaks. You filthy, filthy, filthy raping, murdering freaks.”

No one else joined in. But Breitbart wasn’t really looking to lead a counterprotest. He was trying to seize the spotlight, and he did it quite well. More outrageous, noisy and defiant than anyone around him, he was impossible to ignore. But now his showmanship has come to an end. Breitbart, 43, died on March 1 in California of natural causes, according to his website, Big Government.

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Eras of national tumult are particularly good at creating characters like Breitbart. He was not the first to find fame and fortune by recasting politics as a verbal blood sport. Commentators like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher had been making a mint calling people names for years before him. But Breitbart was the first to do it so successfully with the Internet as his primary medium, and with original, sometimes misleading muckraking as his primary technique. And in that, he leaves behind a generation of would-be ideological warriors and partisans who will follow in his footsteps.

What Breitbart did wasn’t only journalism. It also wasn’t only entertainment. And it wasn’t only combat. In his furious rants and explosive exposés, he pushed the bounds of what could be considered advocacy for a new information age. His foes were not just wrong. They were “the lowest life form I have ever seen.” He was not just speaking truth to power. He was trying to obliterate entire power structures.

Breitbart’s drive kept him in the headlines. He passed around explicit photos that had been taken by former Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner, though Breitbart says he never intended them to be published. He publicized a hidden-camera sting on the long troubled community organization ACORN that showed, at minimum, poor judgment by low-level staff and eventually contributed to the group’s demise. He released part of a speech given by Shirley Sherrod, a Department of Agriculture employee who was fired as a result of the misleadingly edited footage, only to be invited back to the agency once the full text of her speech was publicized.

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“I love fighting back,” he wrote in a new conclusion to his book Righteous Indignation, which his website has posted as an ad hoc epitaph. “I love finding allies, and — famously — I enjoy making enemies.” He put it to TIME another way in 2010: “The second I realized I liked being hated more than I liked being liked — that’s when the game began.” With such a clear self-assessment, he was hard to hate.

Breitbart’s death was an unexpected ending for a middle-class kid from the Los Angeles suburbs who learned the news business from Internet-tabloid purveyor Matt Drudge and partnered with Arianna Huffington to start the Huffington Post before heading off on his own path.

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Ironically, his final public act was an apology. On Wednesday night, he got into a squabble with a Louisiana blogger. Breitbart had called the blogger a “putz.” Then he reconsidered. “I called you a putz cause I thought you were being intentionally disingenuous. If not I apologize,” Breitbart wrote in a tweet, capping a colorful career with two most unlikely final words.

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