Two Sad Farewells

Maybe it’s the years we spent on the dead beat at newspapers in our youth, or maybe it’s the heightened awareness of mortality that comes with age, but when perusing the latest news our eyes are always drawn to the obituaries. This past week’s obits brought notice of the passing of two men who were important figures in American conservatism but otherwise couldn’t have been more different, and the very different reactions to their deaths says a lot about their lives.

One of the men, of course, was Andrew Breitbart, the new media mogul and flamboyantly unconventional political activist who died of a heart attack on Thursday at the age of 43. The “of curse” is added because his death was widely reported and much discussed, even though Brietbart’s name probably wasn’t familiar to the vast majority of Americans who are happily apolitical. Those who have been paying more careful attention to the news will agree that Breitbart’s exploits were the stuff of legend, however, even if they’ll forever disagree on whether he played the role of hero or villain.

Breitbart was the man who brought down ACORN by publicizing some hilarious video footage of two youthful conservatives badly disguised as a pimp and prostitute receiving business advice and encouragement from the community-organizing rascals. He was the man who exposed the even more hilarious Anthony Weiner photo scandal, then hijacked the podium at the disgraced congressman’s press conference to celebrate the victory. He also broke the story of the Obama administration’s politicization of the National Endowment for the Arts, exposed video of an NAACP convention cheering a Department of Agriculture official’s story about her past disdain for white farmers, and uncovered countless other stories that would have otherwise gone unreported.

In every case Breitbart pursued and presented the stories in ways that not only broke with journalistic traditions, but exploited the predictable reactions of the old media still bound to the old rules. The ACORN videos were at first released in an abbreviated form that was certain to provoke charges of selective editing, then more footage was released, and finally the full and un-cut version was offered, dragging the story out over weeks of coverage to a vindicating finish that made fools of his critics. Worse yet for the television and print news media, Breitbart also re-shaped the journalism industry by playing a key role in the formation of the powerful Drudge Report site, a favorite of conservative web-browsers, helping create the Huffington Post, unaware that it would become popular with the liberal internet denizens, and being the principal player in the influential Big Government, Big Hollywood, and Big Journalism web sites.

Oxymoronic as it might sound, Breitbart was an iconoclastic conservative. He adapted Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” for use by radical conservatives, defied the stereotype of the right as stodgy, humorless, and square by being brash, witty, and undeniably hip, and charged through life at a heart attack-inducing pace powered as much by the force of his personality as his ideas.

His life inspired much gratitude and affection by like-minded Americans, as is apparent from the genuinely grief-stricken remembrances in the conservative media, from talk radio to the august right-wing publications to the humble blogs. On the left he inspired fear and loathing, with some coyly insinuating that some personality defect led to his early demise, others more frankly exulting in his death, often with the foul language and seething hatred common to today’s liberalism.

There was a noticeably different tone to the coverage of the death of James Q. Wilson, the eminent social scientist and political philosopher who died Friday from complications from leukemia at the age of 80. The obituaries were rarer, shorter, and likely attracted far fewer readers, but even in the most reliably liberal outlets they all showed the respect that Wilson’s remarkable career commanded.

The New York Times and The Washington Post both emphasized Wilson’s “broken windows theory” of crime, which resulted in the community policing strategies that dramatically lowered crime rates in such big cities as New York and Washington, D.C., which seems apt. While many of Wilson’s ideas were controversial when being implemented, with liberals objecting to crackdowns on squeegee hustlers, panhandlers, and graffiti as an assault on civil liberties, the results were satisfactory to all but the most hopeless ideologues. Wilson’s groundbreaking work in criminology is one of the few examples of an intellectual’s work having a significant and measurable effect on people’s well-being in his own lifetime, and even the editors at those city’s papers know that Wilson is one important reason they haven’t been mugged lately.

There was far more to Wilson’s work than that, however, and it’s easy to see why the more traditional papers would prefer to be brief about it. The son of a salesman and an old-fashioned homemaker, he was graduated from little-known University of Redlands in California and then acquired an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the fancier University of Chicago, then spent 26 years teaching at Harvard before moving on to UCLA and Pepperdine University, a Malibu school affiliated with the theologically conservative Church of Christ. Wilson was one of the first academics to frankly discuss the sometimes unfortunate role that race plays in public life with “Negro Politics,” published in 1960 when the title was considered polite. He analyzed the inherent inefficiency of public administration in 1989’s “Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It.” He questioned the moral relativism of the post-modern intelligentsia with 1993’s “The Moral Sense,” the book he considered his greatest intellectual achievement.

The man was an academic giant and an unabashed conservative, as much as that might sound oxymoronic to the old-line media, and in his own way he was every bit the iconoclast. It was a very different way than Breitbart’s, though. Wilson achieved his fame by the strength of his ideas rather than his bespectacled personality, which by all accounts was genial, easy-going, and pleasantly unexciting. When he defied the norms of his profession it was by reverting to the older, stricter rules, and even his most strident critics could never question the rigor of his scholarship. James Quinn Wilson earned the heartfelt affection of conservatives, at least those familiar with his work, and it’s nice to note that he managed to do so without inspiring a commensurate disdain among liberals.

History will judge which man made the greater contribution, but for now both will be equally missed.

— Bud Norman


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