Did Andrew Breitbart Die of Hostility?

When a 43-year-old man dies of an apparent heart attack, you look for something extraordinary that might explain it. In Andrew Breitbart's case, you don't have to look far.

One of the personality traits correlated with heart trouble is hostility. Redford B. Williams, who did the pioneering work on this several decades ago, found that men with a hostile disposition are more likely to develop irregular heartbeats and die before they reach 50.

I didn't know Andrew Breitbart, but, judging by his work, hostility was no stranger to him. David Frum wrote in an acute post-mortem appraisal, "He delighted in the enraged outburst, the shouted insult, the videotaped jab of a finger into an opponent's chest." Frum explains Breitbart's "intense focus" on President Obama this way: "only by hating a particular political man could Breitbart bring any order to his fundamentally apolitical emotions."

We can put a finer point on this. Williams used as his gauge for hostility the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Interview--specifically, a subset of 50 questions known as the "hostility subscale". And as Williams has pointed out, some of these questions capture a part of a person's makeup that goes beyond hostility in the broad sense; they measure a kind of cynicism--"a contemptuous distrust of human nature and motives," as Williams put it.

In other words, these questions measure the kind of inclination that could lead you to see pervasive and calculated media bias. Dave Weigel recently recalled a phone conversation with Breitbart during the Journolist controversy. He remembered Breitbart saying, "The collusion. All of these reporters agreeing on how to cover a story so it didn't hurt Obama. It's disgusting. It's the corruption of the media. It's corrupt. This is corrupt. This is corruption." Too much of that could be bad for a person's heart.

Obviously, this is just a theory, and a very conjectural one at that. We're not even sure yet that Breitbart died of a heart attack, and even if that is confirmed, we'll never be able to prove that hostility was a factor. And for all I know, Breitbart's closest friends can attest that the contempt and angry indignation were all for show, and that deep down Breitbart was a jovial guy who didn't actually dislike the people and organizations whose reputations he tried to ruin. But for now this theory is consistent with the observed evidence and is as good as any other theory I've heard. Maybe better ones will emerge with time. 

[Update, 3/4: A friend who knew Breitbart writes: "If you are saying that he was a sour hater... you are just wrong. He didn't go around hating generally, wasn't bitter, was positive and ebullient... He was overly cynical about the left, and saw red at a few particular things. But even when he was attacking he was having fun. Not someone who was just pissed off all the time." And Glenn Reynolds says I'm a schmuck. And Ann Althouse says maybe I'm not a schmuck. And Mickey Kaus takes issue with the David Frum piece I quoted. (Mickey's piece was posted before I posted, but I hadn't seen it.) And someone emailed that I was "blaming Breitbart's politics for his death," which strikes me as a pretty strange misreading of what I wrote, and in any event isn't what I intended to convey.]

[Update, 3/5: Now Glenn says I'm not a schmuck after all.]

Meanwhile, here are some appraisals of Breitbart that have taken place on my website Bloggingheads.tv lately:

1) Liberal Bill Scher contrasts Breitbart with William F. Buckley in asking conservative Matt Lewis whether Breitbart actually helped conservatism:

2) Matthew Yglesias, who controversially tweeted after Breitbart's death that "The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBreitbart dead," defends his defying the convention about speaking ill of the recently deceased:

3) Scher asks Lewis what it says about Breitbart that he tended not to confront his most powerful liberal adversaries head on:

[Note: Just to save exacting commenters the trouble: I realize that Weigel says Breitbart wasn't "ranting" when he complained about media corruption. Breitbart, being a journalist, was presumably adopting whatever tone he thought would elicit the desired response from Weigel (a tone of commiseration, Weigel recalls). Still, the conviction of pervasive corruption evinced by that Breitbart quote is consistent with Williams's description of the "cynicism" component of the hostility subscale, and it's reasonable to assume that Breitbart sometimes discussed this perceived corruption more vehemently.]

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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