By Francisco Gonzalez, JMI Development Director
Posted Thursday, March 1, 2012
Andrew Breitbart passed away today, March 1, and we’re going to miss him. To me, if there’s one word that describes Breitbart, it’s that he was “fearless.” He was willing to take on any topic, any foe, any situation, no matter the repercussions. Too few are willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause. It’s the true meaning of being a patriot – or a hero for that matter.Breitbart’s greatest achievements were in the world of social media, but his imprint was much larger than that. His image, his brand, his personality — all were larger-than-life. He was willing to battle it out on cable news networks or by simply showing up at protests to have one-on-one (or one-on-101) debates with his ideological adversaries.In August 2010, The James Madison Institute hosted Andrew Breitbart as our keynote speaker at JMI’s Florida Transparency Summit. When we thought of icons in the new media world who could best talk about transparency in government and holding our elected officials accountable, we could think of no one better to speak to this issue and command attention than Andrew Breitbart.We were able to secure Breitbart as our speaker thanks to a longtime friendship he had with one of our Senior Fellows, Peter Schweizer. Breitbart also regularly published articles from JMI Resident Fellow, Bill Mattox on his highly-trafficked websites.Once we established a date that worked for him and set the rest of the details, Breitbart said he didn’t want to charge us an honorarium. Instead, if we were going to bring him to Florida, he asked if we could arrange for him to take his wife and four children to Disney World. Breitbart mentioned how his travel and many media appearances placed so much demand on his time that he wanted to be able to spend some more time with his family.Our events manager, Jenny Stone, went to work – as did much of our staff – to see what we could arrange. We called some of our donors in Orlando who had connections to Disney. We arranged a package that included putting his family up at Disney for five nights at the Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, providing all of them with five-day park hopper passes, and even arranging for some VIP treatment at some of the parades and shows.Camp Wilderness isn’t your typical Disney resort: the Breitbarts chose it because they wanted to stay in a cabin, rather than a plush hotel. All six of them cooped up in that cabin made us a little nervous, but this was what they wanted – and they enjoyed it!Breitbart’s Disney vacation started on a Tuesday. He then drove himself over to Tampa for our Florida Transparency Summit on Saturday. When he arrived, Jenny and I were the first to greet him as we waited for the earlier session of the summit to conclude. He thanked Jenny for arranging his Disney vacation and said something like: “Thanks to you, my kids now think I’m God.” He said in a few days their sense of wonder might wear off, but he added that they were all having the time of their lives.Breitbart also told us that he was taking his wife and kids to some kind of 80s rock concert in downtown Orlando. The name of the band escapes me now, but I was almost completely surprised by this. My image of Andrew Breitbart was somewhat distant at that time, but after talking with him for close to an hour before his keynote speech, he seemed like a real guy who merely wanted to take on those who wanted to run other people’s lives. I bet with “big government” out of the way, Breitbart would be a different kind of entrepreneur – and have more time to enjoy rock concerts and spend more time with his family.As Breitbart and I continued talking, I mentioned being on the board of James O’Keefe’s organization, Project Veritas, which had just recently formed. Breitbart asked me how I knew him as he had been instrumental in helping publicize James’ ACORN investigation in 2009. After I recounted some stories, he got a twinkle in his eye and said, “That kid changed my life.” It must have. The first story that launched Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com website was James’ ACORN investigation. For weeks on end, the story had legs – and still lives on – as a major victory for citizen journalists everywhere in this era of new media. Breitbart gave the story legs and had a unique ability to navigate through an often hostile media. He made the story more than about ACORN; he used it as an opportunity to expose the bias in the mainstream media at the same time.During his speech at the Summit, Breitbart seemed at times like he had attention deficit disorder (ADD), drifting from one subject to the next. One moment he was talking about something serious, citing ancient philosophers and modern pundits; the next minute he was busting out frat boy style jokes. Breitbart, though, was a serious guy, passionately devoted to the cause, with a quick sense of humor and a unique way with words, a sense of strategy, and ample courage. There is probably no one who can fill the void he left. But there are now millions inspired to proclaim the truth, unafraid. For that, we can only give thanks.