Andrew Breitbart, the Web entrepreneur, writer, provocateur and television personality who died suddenly last week at 43, always described himself as an "accidental culture warrior." For the few years Breitbart was given to fight the fight, his conversion from Hollywood guy to culture warrior was one of the most fortunate accidents ever to befall the conservative world.
Breitbart did a lot of things. But for the right, by far the most important thing he did was teach, again and again and again, that culture is upstream from politics.
Breitbart knew instinctively, as people in Washington, D.C., and most other places did not, that movies, television programs and popular music send out deeply political messages every hour of every day. They shape the culture, and then the culture shapes politics. Influence those films and TV shows and songs, and you'll eventually influence politics.
The left had known that for generations, but on the right, so many people in politics thought only about politics. To Breitbart, that was folly. "The people who have money, every four years at the last possible second, are told, 'You need to give millions of dollars, because these four counties in Ohio are going to determine the election,'" Breitbart told the National Policy Council in October 2009. "I am saying, why didn't we invest 20 years ago in a movie studio in Hollywood, why didn't we invest in creating television shows, why didn't we create institutions that would reflect and affirm that which is good about America?"
Breitbart was close with the small -- but not as small as you might think -- group of conservatives in the Hollywood entertainment world. They were fond of citing various quotes from history to the effect that those who write a nation's songs are more influential than those who write a nation's laws. Breitbart's friends in the entertainment industry were extraordinarily talented, accomplished people, but many felt they had to stay quiet about their politics. They had real reason to fear that being outspokenly conservative would hurt their careers in a way that being outspokenly liberal would not.
Breitbart helped change that situation, or at least helped begin to change that situation. "There is an underground conservative movement," he said in 2009. "I have more friends who are conservative in (Hollywood), with brand names, writers, directors, graphic artists, comedians, singers, songwriters, rock and rollers, punk rockers, believe it or not, who love this country, most of whom are cultural conservatives, and who have existed in the closet for the last 40 years, because the conservative movement was, for the most part, based in the Northeast and kind of pooh-poohed the culture or just didn't think that there was a cultural right out there."
There really was a cultural right out there, and Breitbart made sure the country -- and those Eastern conservatives -- knew it.
Sometimes Breitbart's message got lost in his antics. At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, he took delight in plunging into a small crowd of Occupy Wall Street protesters. "Behave yourself!" Breitbart yelled, reminding them of the underreported violence and ugly incidents in some Occupy camps. "Stop raping people! Stop raping people!"
It drove some people nuts, as intended. So did a lot of other things Breitbart said. But his bigger message was always the same: Change the culture and you'll change politics.
A lot of young conservatives, born into the Web world, considered Breitbart not just a role model, or a mentor, but a hero. He returned the affection. "I have spoken at the Leadership Institute, Young America's Foundation and College Republicans," he said in 2009. "I will go for free wherever the kids will listen to me."
At that time, Breitbart was riding high from championing the expose of ACORN, in which the young conservative James O'Keefe and a friend dressed as a pimp and a prostitute in a (successful) hidden-camera effort to reveal corruption in the government-funded community organizing group. Breitbart knew that kind of energy and audacity didn't come from established politicians or columnists or talking heads.
"I have said that the youth is where this movement will begin, and they are the only ones who truly matter to me," Breitbart said. "I have to be honest with you. I don't like speaking to people my age, because we are too conservative. We have families. We have 401(k)s, and we aren't willing to dress as pimps and prostitutes."
Breitbart knew conservatives would have to change, to pay more attention to the culture, to win. That's what he tried to teach, every day.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.