In young, conservative circles, there are many ambitious go-getters who want to be the next Andrew Breitbart. Say what you will about the late right-wing pioneer (and there are plenty of negative things to say), but as Joan Walsh wrote recently, the founder of the eponymous media empire was inimitable, both in his successes and tremendous failings, and there is no obvious successor.
The empire he left behind is riven with bitter internal disputes, as BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins detailed, and there is a dearth of young up-and-comers. James O’Keefe happily played this role for a while, but his star has since fallen as his legal troubles have mounted. Dana Loesch, the brash radio host who briefly helmed one of the Breitbart sites, has also been pushed aside (and sued over it).
On MSNBC, the left has Chris Hayes, Ezra Klein and Salon's own Steve Kornacki. Who does the right have? One candidate is Ben Shapiro, the former child prodigy violinist and academic whiz kid, who now holds down dual roles as an editor-at-large for Breitbart.com and a legal consultant.
To assume Breitbart's mantle, it will take a combination of the righteous indignation powerful enough to overcome all enemies, factual or personal; the biting and often comical wit; and the entrepreneurial cleverness of the late conservative icon, who passed away last March. Shapiro may be up for the challenge.
“I don’t remember a time when I was ever apolitical,” he tells Salon.
Long before the recent “Friends of Hamas” flap in which he was embroiled, Shapiro’s political career got started at the ripe old age of 11 when he wrote a paper about the ongoing Clinton impeachment hearings (he sided with the Republicans). At 12, while you were riding bikes and playing with G.I. Joes, Shapiro was getting introduced by Larry King before performing on violin the theme from "Schindler's List" at the Israeli Bonds Banquet. “His goal is to be the first Orthodox rabbi to sit on the Supreme Court. Meaning the court will have to close at 3 o’clock on Friday! Also, he wants to be the first to give a concert at Carnegie Hall,” King joked, though the ambition was deadly serious.
At 16, while you were learning to drive and working up the courage to ask Julie Rubenstein on a date, Shapiro was graduating from high school -- two years early -- and enrolling as a freshman at UCLA. At 17, while you were still trying to work up the courage to ask Julie Rubenstein on that date, Shapiro was inking a contract with Creators Syndicate, becoming the youngest nationally syndicated columnist in the country.
At 20, as you were trying convince the bouncer your fake ID was legit, Shapiro was entering Harvard Law School, where he graduated cum laude three years later, earning a reputation as a vocal but open-minded conservative.
Now nearly 30, Shapiro still doesn't look much older than the cherubic kid playing violin (though somewhere along the way he got married). And while he may not be a violin-playing justice/rabbi, it’s hard not to acknowledge his success, whether you love him or hate him.
If you’re conservative, you’ve probably read his writing at Breitbart.com and have seen his endlessly retweeted January appearance on Piers Morgan, where he schooled the CNN host on gun control. Or maybe you’ve read his new book -- his fifth so far -- out from a Simon & Schuster imprint. You may have also caught him on Fox News, where he robotically dispenses talking points at a ruthless clip that demands to be taken seriously.
If you’re a liberal, your loathing may match conservatives’ respect for him. You certainly know about “Friends of Hamas,” a fictional group Shapiro foolishly tied to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a much ballyhooed exclusive report that turned out be a bogus fabrication of a twisted game of telephone. Or maybe you remember “hug-gate,” Shapiro’s "scoop" that Obama hugged a “radical” Harvard professor. Or perhaps you recall his book asserting that Sesame Street indoctrinates kids with a leftist, pro-gay agenda. Maybe you even read about his “fascistic vision of Israel.”
If you live in his native Los Angeles, maybe you’ve heard Shapiro on KRLA, where he co-hosts "The Morning Answer," a political talk show where he faces off against a liberal every day. (If you think Hollywood is an odd place to find an arch-conservative, so does he: “I spent my whole life hanging out with people on the other side.)
At CPAC, the premier annual gathering of conservatives, Shapiro was a star. You could find him signing books, speaking on one or two panels, giving interviews to radio hosts lined up outside the main hall, or getting stopped by admirers as he flitted from one event to another.
“Hate to interrupt, Mr. Shapiro, thanks so much for all your efforts, man, I really appreciate it,” a preppy college-aged guy says sheepishly. “I really dig Breitbart.com, I just finished your book, everything.” Does that happen a lot, I ask? “It’s been happening a fair bit, more than I would have expected,” he replies.
While he’s best known for trashing liberals, fairly or not, Shapiro insists he respects them -- as long they're smart -- and loves to mix it up with them. “I think that we appreciate the folks that are on the other side, just like anybody who’s in any war. You sort of learn to appreciate the folks on the other side, because without the other side, there is no war,” he explains.
Respect, maybe, but not necessarily trust. When we sit down for the interview, close to the first anniversary of Breitbart's death, Shapiro asks to record our conservation so I won't use any of his quotes out of context. Our two voice recorders sit opposing each other on the armrests of our chairs like enemy guards along the Demilitarized Zone.
At Harvard Law, he was particularly fond of Lani Guinier, a liberal professor who was perceived as being too radical to get confirmed when Bill Clinton nominated her to be assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993. The Wall Street Journal famously dubbed her “Clinton’s Quota Queen” and the White House withdrew her nomination on the advice of Teddy Kennedy.
Guinier, reached by Salon at her office, had no idea what had become of her former student, but dug up old correspondence with Shapiro where she praised him for being an outspoken but fair participant in her class. In his self-evaluation, Shapiro lauded Guinier for creating an open environment for real debate, and other students often mentioned his name in their own evaluations, applauding him for helping them change their thinking on some topic, she recalled.
“This is as good a letter as any,” she said of an email she wrote to him at the end of the term, thanking him for his participation (and mentioning that he missed a few classes).
Unlike plenty of other commentators on either side, Shapiro insists he’s not an inflexible ideological robot. He’s evolved on Israel, the issue that first got him seriously interested in politics (he’s moved from “hard right” to “center right”) and now thinks that the government should just get out of the business of marriage entirely.
He gives another example: “I’m the guy who, when I was in college, I was the narc who was calling the cops on 4/20 day when there’d be hundreds of kids on the lawn,” he says, laughing. “The call would go like this, I’d say, ‘There are 300 kids and they’re all smoking pot on the lawn at Kerckhoff, can you please like make a show that you care about the law?’ And they’d be like, ‘No, we’re busy. Call Westwood PD.’ OK, fine, so I call Westwood PD. ‘Call LAPD,’ [they said]. OK, fine, so I call LAPD. Nothing. And finally after all that, I was like, OK, fine.”
And you don’t mean metaphorically.... you actually called the cops? “Oh no no, I actually called the cops.”
Now, however, he says: “Fine, decriminalize it and tax the crap out of it, and we’re good to go.”
Much of Andrew Breitbart’s work focused on the media -- "where the real war is," as he said -- and in Shapiro’s utopian vision, we could just get rid of all non-ideological mainstream media outlets because there’s no such thing as objectivity anyway. “What he objected to," Shapiro says, channeling his late mentor, "was people acting like objective journalists when they had an ax to grind." Shapiro says he's happy to cooperate with Salon because "everyone knows where you're coming from."
And to Shapiro, it's all about the fight -- what we might traditionally consider journalism is secondary. “We understand that this is a media and culture war and we’re willing to engage it," he says.
Asked if he’d like to do more TV, he responds, “Whatever allows me to advance the message. TV is obviously an incredibly powerful medium.”
But couldn’t a media landscape dominated by ideological outlets alone lead to more narrative-driven errors, like the Friends of Hamas snafu? “We’re all striving for some semblance of truth, even if there’s angles to it,” he explains. “When people make corrections or find things that I do wrong, it doesn’t upset me. It urges me to do better."