Brit Hume, Cheney's Choice For a Straight Shooter
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Brit Hume was in his morning staff meeting at Fox News yesterday when his cell phone rang. It was Dick Cheney.
The network's Washington managing editor had been pressing for the interview that every news organization was hotly pursuing, and now the vice president was saying that he would talk to Hume -- and only Hume -- about the hunting accident that has put him at the center of a fierce Beltway storm.
"I felt the need to ask the questions my colleagues would want to ask," said Hume, who taped the 25-minute sitdown yesterday afternoon for his 6 p.m. show "Special Report."
"There are certain situations where there's a news story and the first objective of anyone covering it is to ask, 'What happened and why did you handle the information the way you did?'" While "I'd like to think the interview was compelling because I was skillful in my questions," Hume said, "the style of the questions was beside the point."
He said Cheney seemed "really shaken" by the incident but was "utterly unapologetic" about his refusal to make the news public through his office or to volunteer information until yesterday.
Mary Matalin, a former Cheney aide and informal adviser who accompanied him to the interview in the vice president's ceremonial office, said the vice president likes Hume but that "our objective was to get the whole story out in a consecutive way. He wanted a long form. We had no desire for anything other than comprehensive and hard questions."
Matalin said Cheney considered holding a news conference, but that "would have meant a lot of grandstanding" by reporters. "Everyone asks the same questions so they can get on their networks," she said. Matalin said she didn't think "any purpose would be served" by the vice president doing further interviews because every news organization will excerpt the Fox session.
Hume, who has known Cheney since he was a House member from Wyoming, said he believes the vice president chose Fox because it is the top-rated cable network, and picked him because he hosts the only Washington-oriented hour on Fox's schedule.
Advance excerpts of the interview immediately made worldwide news. Cheney took full responsibility as "the guy who pulled the trigger" in the shooting of his friend Harry Whittington, and described the sequence of events as "one of the worst days of my life."
Hume, who left ABC News a decade ago to join the fledgling cable network, often serves as anchor during major political events. His show includes a nightly panel in which he and such commentators as Fred Barnes, Mort Kondracke, Mara Liasson, Charles Krauthammer and Juan Williams analyze the news, and Hume is not shy about taking shots at the mainstream media.
Hume has questioned the recent behavior of the White House press corps, telling viewers Tuesday: "It doesn't seem to me, from what I can tell, from what I'm reading from the public, that the public much cares about whether they found out about this on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon or Monday morning."
Cheney has been under enormous pressure to speak about Saturday's hunting accident -- including from other Republicans and unnamed administration officials -- but chose to grant a single interview rather than making himself more widely available.
"Going to Brit Hume doesn't solve Dick Cheney's crisis problem," said Lanny Davis, a Democratic lawyer and damage-control specialist. "It's not because Brit Hume works for Fox, because Hume is a tough reporter. It's because it doesn't address the elephant-in-the-room issue, which is Dick Cheney and his refusal to be open with the press."
Hume, who has interviewed President Bush twice, has an understated style that avoids long-winded, but he touched the major bases in his discussion with the vice president. He asked short questions -- "There was just two of you then?" "You had pulled the trigger and you saw him?" -- in leading Cheney through the account of the quail-hunting accident. Hume asked whether anyone was drinking (Cheney said he had had a beer at lunch hours earlier) and asked whom Cheney first talked to at the White House (Chief of Staff Andrew Card). He even asked whether Cheney hit the bird (the vice president didn't know).
Without deviating from his soft-spoken tone, Hume pressed Cheney about why he didn't release the information sooner and had the owner of the Texas ranch where he was hunting notify the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. "I mean, the one thing that we've all kind of learned over the last several decades is that if something like this happens, as a rule sooner is better," Hume said. He said Cheney's action "does raise the question of whether you couldn't have headed off this Beltway firestorm if you had put out the word to the national media. . . . I mean, in retrospect, wouldn't that have been the wise course?"
Hume added that "the suspicion grows in some quarters that this was an attempt to minimize it, by having it first appear in a little paper."
Hume also asked Cheney whether he had authorized his indicted former aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby to leak information in the Valerie Plame leak case, but was rebuffed.
Fox News is widely viewed as more sympathetic to the Bush administration than the other networks, particularly through its high-profile talk show hosts. Asked about suggestions that Cheney chose Fox to assure himself of a friendly forum, Hume said: "If they want to say that, that's fine. Let people look at the transcript of the interview."
Did Cheney appear tense before the interview got underway? "He's an outwardly unemotional man," Hume said. "There were no jokes."
While some liberal commentators have criticized Hume over the years, two of Bill Clinton's White House spokesmen say he was always fair in his dealings with them.
Mike McCurry said Hume was "impartial and balanced and fair" as an ABC correspondent covering Clinton, but that "he's in advocacy journalism now."
Joe Lockhart, who worked for Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign, said that Hume "was a real favorite of Mondale's. You can't spend a lot of time with Brit and not know he's a conservative guy, but it was our belief that never showed up in his journalism. Now he's got a more edgy and opinionated program."
Emily Rooney, a talk show host for Boston's WGBH-TV who worked with Hume at ABC News, praised Hume's intuitive grasp of politics.
Hume has "never hidden" his conservative leanings, she said, and Cheney "chose Brit Hume for a reason -- because he's always given a fair hearing to the Republican Party, which not every journalist did along the way."