Andrew Breitbart in front of the Tea Party Express bus at the 2010 California Republican Party Spring Convention.
The California State Republican Convention was held this weekend at the Santa Clara Hyatt right next to the Great America theme park. The park is closed for the winter, so guest-of-honor Mitt Romney couldn't test his hair's immovability against the double corkscrews and 90-foot drops of the rollercoaster called The Demon and so many Sarah Palin fans didn't get the chance to take a ride on the Grizzly. But because of the park's existence, the streets in the area sport a Revolutionary War theme that coincides with the current conservative mania for our country's founding. Patrick Henry Drive crosses Democracy Way and Betsy Ross Drive runs smack into Bunker Hill Lane. Bunker Hill Lane ends in the Hyatt and Santa Clara County Convention Center.
I was there at 7:30am on a Saturday to see Andrew Breitbart, the 6'1", 200+ pound Hedda Hopper of the Internet era. Breitbart was speaking at the California Republican Party breakfast where GOP activists dined on scrambled eggs served with spears of steamed asparagus in one of the convention center's midsized ballrooms. Breitbart really has an axe to grind against Salon these days, although he later told me that his favorite author is Salon contributor Camille Paglia. While Breitbart took his digs at Salon during his speech, I initially found preceding comments by five-term Congressman Darrell Issa about media management to be more far more disturbing than any of Breitbart's bombast.
However, I crossed with Breitbart later in the day in the convention center's concourse where he talked at me for several minutes. I caught most of this détente on tape (I turned on my digital recorder a couple of minutes into the conversation, after I realized that he was going to talk to me for a while). I will post a transcript of this conversation in a follow up blog and also tell the tale of Breitbart's attempt to get me on stage with him at an event called the Tea Party Express. For now, let's just say that an afternoon of tête-à-tête with Breitbart made me feel like Sidney Falco to his J.J. Hunsecker, for those of you who've seen "The Sweet Smell of Success" recently.
But at the breakfast, what was amazing about Issa's speech was how baldly he laid out the conservative's emphasis on media management over governing. "We are not in the legislating business, we are in the communications business," he said, recounting some advice once given to him by John Boehner, a man Issa referred as the "not necessarily awe inspiring minority leader." Issa went on to say that when he took over the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, he fired half of it but increased the communications staff by five times. In other words, Issa replaced overseers and reformers with a team of P.R. hacks. (Issa is currently the ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.)
"Some would call it spin," Issa continued, "I'd call it knowledge enhancement."
"I hate the term grassroots," Issa said as he started to wrap up his presentation. Initially, I thought that Issa was going to play a game of semantics but he instead struck an elitist tone. "I don't think we're grassroots. I think we're so much more important than grassroots. The grassroots are the people you then motivate. That you then work with back home. You're the sophisticated part of our party."
While Issa may disregard the grassroots, he doesn't shy away from copping their sheen, at least in name only. During an early afternoon visit to the press room, Issa dropped off fliers for something called the "ISSA TEA PARTY!" that was to be held at 4pm in the room next door. The little soiree was billed as a "Salute to TEA (sic) Party Patriots and Conservative Thinkers." A host bar and hors d'oevres were promised. With that host bar, maybe Issa should have branded his get together as the "Long Island Iced Tea Party."
When Breitbart took the stage, he immediately asked, "Is Salon.com in the room?" It was early. I was only one of two writers there at the press table in the back of the room. I raised my hand although I'm not actually an employee of Salon's.
"I'm a lover not a hater," Breitbart said, "Don't take it personally, what I'm about to say." I wonder how he'd feel if he knew that I usually reviewed straight to DVD slasher flicks hosted by Flavor Flav and action movies that star pro wrestlers. Would he think it was appropriate?
But Breitbart didn't say anything unexpected or maybe Issa had sucked all of the air out of the room, something probably thought to be impossible with regards to Breitbart. Breitbart did promise that tea partiers were going to show up to the trial of James O'Keefe, the rightwing media prankster and Breitbart collaborator who was recently arrested while trying to tap the phones of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu. "They're not going to enjoy what the new media can bring to bear when they see injustice and they see corruption," he warned.
That "they" was never defined by Breitbart. Was he referring to prosecutors? Louisiana officials? The "they" could have meant any of the many enemies Breitbart has declared his spiritual war against. The greatest victory in this war has been the now infamous ACORN videos by O'Keefe and Hannah Giles. Late last year, these videos were a media sensation, however their real-world affect has been debatable. Earlier in the month, the Brooklyn district attorney found no evidence that the local ACORN office had engaged in any criminal wrongdoing and U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon ruled that the cutting of ACORN funding by Congress was unconstitutional just a few days ago. But court rulings didn't stop Breitbart from engaging in further "knowledge enhancement."
"Thank you Salon," he said, trying to needle me. "Thank you Eric Boehlert and Media Matters. Thank you hard left for trying to destroy James, Hannah and me for the last six months. Instead of investigating ACORN, you investigated us. Your attempts to destroy us only drew attention to the ACORN videos."
Breitbart then likened his defense against negative Salon.com coverage to Muhammad Ali's use of the rope-a-dope during his fight against "George Frazier," making George Foreman and "Smokin' Joe Frazier into some kind of composite character. "So as Salon is attacking me," he mocked, "keep on attacking because the more you attack, the bigger we're going to become and just at the exact moment you think you're going to destroy us, we're going to drop the HUD videos." In these new, threatened videos, O'Keefe evidently caught HUD workers in the act of criminal book cooking.
In Breitbart's mind, Salon and HUD are somehow in cahoots I guess just as NBC and the FBI are orchestrating a campaign to smear James O'Keefe. Everything is unified. The disturbing thing is that if Breitbart does have some material that sheds light on government corruption, then why does he hang on to it in order to maximize the points he can score on one news organization or another? Shouldn't he make them public? I had the chance to ask him this later in the afternoon and I'll have that transcript up shortly.
Bob Calhoun is the author of the punk wrestling memoir, "Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling" (2008, ECW Press.) He is currently working on a book about conventions. In addtion to the California Republican Convention, so far he has been to a "Star Trek" con, a music industry tradeshow and Macworld. Up next is WrestleMania.