What Killed Andrew Breitbart?
What Killed Andrew Breitbart?
The sudden death of a youngish media celebrity in the early hours of the morning can usually be counted on to provoke a torrent of salacious speculation from LA's ravenous media gossip mill. The passing of Andrew Breitbart last Thursday was no exception.
Breitbart, who died at 43, was a conservative icon—a manic, maddening architect of some of the most explosive political scandals in recent years. He played an outsized role in some of the world's most influential news sites, working with Matt Drudge as an editor at the Drudge Report before helping Arianna Huffington launch the Huffington Post. More recently he started his own successful network of conservative news websites, including Breitbart.com, BigGovernment.com and BigHollywood.com, which draw millions of visitors every month and earned him a hefty salary and a high profile. But he achieved a new level of notoriety in the past two years, after he helped orchestrate a series of crudely-edited video stings that led to the resignation of Shirley Sherrod, a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture executive, and the collapse of the social-advocacy association ACORN. These and other triumphs—including the Twitter-pic takedown of New York congressman Anthony Wiener—turned Breitbart into a right-wing hero, a sought-after speaker on the right-wing lecture circuit, and a regular opinionator on Fox News.
By Hollywood standards, Breitbart's death was relatively undramatic—no bathtub overdose here. Walking back to his Westwood home shortly after midnight, after a glass or two of wine at a local bar, he suddenly collapsed on the sidewalk, a few feet away from his house. A passerby who saw him fall called 911, and paramedics transported him to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 12:19 am.
The first report of the blogger's demise was posted on his own website, BigGovernment.com, just hours later. Saluting him as a “happy warrior,” the site took pains to note that he had died of “natural causes.” While many journalists wondered privately what natural causes could claim a seemingly healthy 43-year-old man, thousands of mainstream outlets nonetheless parroted the phrase. But LA County Chief Coroner Investigator Craig Harvey told The Fix that “natural causes” is merely “a non-forensic evaluation of a person's death,” meaning that "[the body has] nothing externally visible that would lead them to believe that the death was caused by blunt-force trauma, a stab wound, or so on." As such, Harvey says, it is standard operating procedure for the coroner to perform a full toxicology report to determine whether "drugs, alcohol, poisons or other foreign substances" played a role in Breitbart’s death.
That exam was concluded on Friday. “The final cause of death has been ‘Deferred’ pending the receipt of toxicological and microscopic studies,” Harvey told The Fix. “It is anticipated that these test results should be available in four to six weeks. Once the results have been received and evaluated, a final cause of death will be entered for Mr. Breitbart.”
It is generally accepted that Breitbart suffered a heart attack. His father-in-law, the comic actor and conservative activist Orson Bean, was reportedly at Breitbart’s home the night he died, and saw him collapse. He later told reporters that his son-in-law had a history of heart problems—a revelation that came as a surprise to many of his friends. Nonetheless, soon after his death was announced, blogosphere back channels—and numerous emails to The Fix—began buzzing with speculation that drugs or alcohol had played a role in his passing. But despite their private discussions of the topic, not a single mainstream media outlet or website dared to publicly raise the question of substances. Instead, the media began giving airtime to right-wing conspiracy theories.
The most prevalent rumor goes something like this: In reaction to Breitbart’s pledge to release video of a college-age President Obama appearing alongside a pair of notable “Weather Underground terrorists,” the President’s associates had Breitbart killed. One person quoted in a Daily Mail story about the percolating conspiracy theory said, “There will be an autopsy and they will decide on natural causes, but there is a way to induce a heart attack in human beings.” Another skeptic told the Mail, “One thing is for sure, 43-year-old people don’t die from natural causes.”
It’s true. Most 43-year-olds don’t die from natural causes. But while the mainstream media that Breitbart regularly blasted as a leftist “bully media cabal" has gamely picked up conspiracy theories about his death, they have pointedly ignored a much more plausible explanation, which is that Breitbart was a high-strung man with a hard-drinking history, who frequently worked himself into a lather of of rage as he did battle in a maximum-intensity industry.
“Andrew Breitbart is dead at 43 from ‘natural causes,'" read a tweet that echoed hundreds of others posted after his death. "Yes I suppose wine is pretty natural.” A commenter on an addiction site noted that Breitbart’s enraged appearances reminded him of his own behavior after an extended cocaine binge. “You can’t summon up that kind of insane rage naturally," he said. "No one can be so angry all the time.”
Despite his outraged outsider stance, Breitbart lead a fairly privileged life. Adopted by a well-to-do Jewish couple in LA, he attended two of the city’s most exclusive schools before decamping to Tulane University in New Orleans. According to a 2010 profile in Salon, it was in college that he honed his drinking and journalism skills—as well as his contempt for cultural liberalism. “His first piece for the Tulane Hullaballoo was a field analysis of Tulane's most notoriously debauched hookup bar, complete with annotated floor diagrams and submitted on 19 cocktail napkins,” reported Chris Beam. Breitbart recalled, “When I told my parents I was an American studies major, they were like, ‘That's fantastic! Did you read Mark Twain?’ ‘No, I didn't.’ ‘What did you read?’ ‘Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Michel Foucault.’ ‘They don't sound American!’ ‘They're not.’" Luckily, said Breitbart, “I was too drunk to be completely indoctrinated by it.”