Don’t Rewrite Andrew Breitbart’s Legacy

I extend condolences to Andrew Breitbart’s family. He died last week at the young age of 43. Because my brother died at age 36, I know how a sudden death of a young man shocks, saddens, and pains a family.

I followed Breitbart closely while writing Seeds of Change, the Story of ACORN, the controversial anti-poverty organization. Despite his untimely death, we can’t and shouldn’t rewrite his legacy.

Let’s be clear: to cheer his death as many on the left have done is morally wrong. Breitbart was tough, funny and hard working, qualities that his friends, family, and even his opponents admired and loved. Among conservatives he will be remembered as a hero whose narratives mercilessly punished liberals with good cause.

Yet Andrew Breitbart devoted his life to serving the privileged and powerful, and particularly in the right wing establishment, through his special genius at manipulating mainstream media.

Surely he was smart: smart enough to know that ACORN was not the danger to our democracy portrayed by Glenn Beck, Fox News and John McCain and others.

Nonetheless, he artfully conspired with James O’Keefe to publicize doctored, misleading, undercover videos that metastasized from the blogosphere to Fox News to CNN and soon to the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. For fifteen terrible minutes, because of Breitbart, ACORN became the Communist Party boogieman that had empowered the Republicans of the 1950’s. After a stampeded and cowardly U.S Congress stripped ACORN of its federal funds, most of ACORN’s supporters fled, refusing to defend the group, which help lead to the demise of a four decade old, powerful anti-poverty organization. After its demise the group was cleared of all wrong doing by several federal and state investigations.

After ACORN, Breitbart tried to destroy the reputation of an innocent woman, Shirley Sherrod, who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and helped to smear a dedicated New Jersey teacher who risked her risked her life to save the lives of a dozen Passaic schoolchildren.

We can’t whitewash Breitbart’s legacy. He must be remembered for bullying tactics that damaged many. He never apologized. He reminds us that we should be careful what we live for.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that fighting bullies requires not just love, but toughness. Respond with weakness and the Breitbarts attack harder the next time.

John Atlas is a founder of Shelterforce and board chair emeritus. He is the producer of ACORN and the Firestorm, a film directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard and author of SEEDS OF CHANGE: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He is also the former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society.


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