By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
It was a different era, a different administration and a very different Brit Hume.
Thirty-six years ago, as a long-haired reporter for columnist Jack Anderson, Hume was handed information that Spiro Agnew's son had left his wife and moved in with a male hairdresser. Hume tracked down the vice president's son in Baltimore, talked his way in with a made-up tale about reports that Randy Agnew was living in a "hippie crash pad" and confirmed the details. Although Hume expressed strong reservations about the story -- his wife thought it was disgraceful -- he convinced himself that it could be a big deal.
"It's a story I wish I hadn't done," Hume says now. "We had no idea whether what the story implied was true, that the kid was gay and his gayness had anything to do with the rift with his family."
As a senior Fox News executive and anchor who landed the only interview with Vice President Cheney after his hunting accident, Hume has traveled light-years since his early days as a dogged investigator. He has made the transition from newspaper reporter to television star, from outside critic to charter member of the Washington establishment, from garden-variety liberal to committed conservative. He has become an acerbic critic of his chosen profession. And he has endured a family tragedy that changed his outlook on life.
There is a formal bearing about Hume that transcends his suspenders and American flag lapel pin. He speaks deliberately, unhurriedly, making his points with logic rather than passion. On a network filled with flamboyant personalities, he gave his nightly program the bland title "Special Report."
"I was trying to develop a show that wasn't about me," says Hume, 62.
Fred Barnes, an old friend and regular panelist on "Special Report," says Hume has essentially rejected the Beltway social scene.
"He doesn't go to the Kennedy Center," Barnes says. "He doesn't want to have dinner with Cabinet members or hang around with other people in the press. It's not normal for a person at the top of the heap in Washington."
Despite an aura of self-confidence bordering on cockiness, Hume shies away from self-promotion. The day that he scooped the world with Cheney's first account of his accidental shooting of a hunting companion, the former ABC newsman declined an invitation from "Good Morning America," saying he had time only to appear on Fox's morning show.
Cheney's choice of Hume was widely mocked, although most journalists acknowledged that the interview, while polite, was thorough. Hume, like his network, has clearly become a lightning rod in a polarized media environment. Hume is almost evangelical in his belief that he is fair and balanced while most of the media are not, an argument challenged by several studies showing that his program leans to the right.
Hume is no partisan brawler in the mold of some of Fox's high-decibel hosts. By virtue of his investigative background, his understated style and his management role, he represents a hybrid strain: conservatives who believe in news, not bloviation, but news that passes through a different lens, filtered through a different set of assumptions.
On April 6, when every network newscast led with the revelation that President Bush had authorized former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to leak classified information about Iraq, Hume began his program with an apology by Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney for a physical altercation with a Capitol police officer a week earlier. Bush and the CIA leak was Hume's third story.
"Sure, I'm a conservative, no doubt about it," Hume says. "But I would ask people to look at the work." He does not accuse his fellow journalists of pursuing a partisan agenda, saying their bias is "unconscious."
Hume and his wife, Kim, abandon Washington every Thursday night for their country home in Fauquier County -- in the tiny town of Hume, Va., named for one of his relatives in a clan that emigrated from Scotland in 1721. But that doesn't mean Hume is unmindful of his standing in the capital.
"One of the things he needs is to be respected and thought of as somebody who matters in the world, and he's very upfront about that," says Kim Hume, who is Fox's Washington bureau chief. "But he is not egocentric in the normal sense of what you think of a TV anchorman."A Move to Television
Hume's first job was not what you would call glamorous.
It was 1965, and he had married his first wife, Clare Stoner, in his senior year at the University of Virginia, where by his own account he barely managed to graduate. The son of a Washington manufacturing rep who marketed his own inventions, including a bird feeder, Hume had attended St. Albans but had no great media contacts. So when an employment agency landed him a $5,000-a-year job as a reporter for the Hartford Times in Connecticut, Hume grabbed it.
Hume fell in love with the paper, which has since folded, and then jumped to United Press International. A year later he joined the Baltimore Evening Sun, which led to a fellowship at the Washington Journalism Center, where he was befriended by Ralph Nader. The consumer advocate suggested that he dig into corruption at the United Mine Workers and even put Hume in touch with his publisher. The book research led to an article in the Atlantic, and that, in turn, persuaded Anderson to hire the young reporter.
"I was in hog heaven," Hume says.
Hume loved working for Anderson and came up with a huge scoop. Anderson had obtained a memo from an ITT Corp. lobbyist that linked a $400,000 contribution to the Republican National Convention with the Nixon Justice Department's settlement of a major antitrust suit against the corporation. Hume confirmed the story with the lobbyist, Dita Beard, and wound up testifying on the Hill amid a tidal wave of publicity. Attorney General Richard Kleindienst later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for failing to tell a Senate hearing that President Nixon had told him to settle the ITT suit.
After Anderson had to retract a 1972 charge that Democratic vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton had been arrested for drunken driving, Hume concluded that his boss's credibility had been tarnished and resigned. But he was thrown together with Anderson again when a former general counsel for the mining union sued for libel over a column based on information from a confidential source.
"I was so worried about this," says Hume, who admits that part of the story was wrong. "It hung over me for six years." The case took a crucial turn when his lawyer persuaded the source -- the daughter-in-law of a senior union official -- to testify. A federal jury acquitted Hume and Anderson in 1975.
By then Hume had become a consultant to ABC News, and the following year he was offered a correspondent's job. Hume says he was "terrible," often standing with his head cocked to one side or looking stiff and unnatural, and that "it was humiliating." But eventually he learned the craft and covered the House for 11 years. Hume became more conservative as he saw how much money Congress wasted, and found the coverage of President Reagan "so biased," including the use of the derisive term "trickle-down economics."
When he was assigned to cover Walter Mondale's campaign to unseat Reagan in 1984, Hume says that "personally, I didn't want Mondale to win the election. But I admired him and liked him and felt it was my job to give him a fair shake." Hume was "a real favorite of Mondale's," says Joe Lockhart, who worked on that campaign. In 1988, however, Michael Dukakis's campaign complained to ABC that Hume's coverage of Vice President Bush was much softer than the network's reporting on the Democratic nominee.
After moving up to the White House beat in 1989, Hume occasionally got into arguments with anchor Peter Jennings over how stories should be handled.
"He and Peter had some clashes over coverage of the White House," says Charlie Gibson, who worked closely with Hume before becoming a co-host of "Good Morning America." "I saw Brit make arguments to Peter when he felt Peter was taking a position that was left of center, or wrong."
Hume says he came to feel "out of step with ABC News's natural tendencies." He recalls challenging an assignment about how the first President Bush "isn't doing anything" by saying: "Has it ever occurred to you that this guy's a Republican and Republicans don't believe that government is the solution to all the country's problems?"
When Bill Clinton took office, Hume found him "the most charming man I ever met." But on June 14, 1993, he felt the new president's wrath.
Clinton had just introduced Ruth Bader Ginsburg as his Supreme Court nominee, and Hume told the president that his consideration of other candidates and withdrawal of another nominee "may have created an impression, perhaps unfair, of a certain zigzag quality in the decision-making process here. I wonder, sir, if you could kind of walk us through it and perhaps disabuse us of any notion we might have along those lines. Thank you."
Clinton glared at Hume. "How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me," the president said, and abruptly ended the news conference.
Clinton quickly found a way to make amends. After learning that Hume had just returned from his honeymoon in Hawaii with his new bride, Kim, an ABC producer, Clinton -- who had a rough first six months with the press -- joked,"I'm just jealous that you had a honeymoon and I didn't."
During White House briefings, says former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry, Hume would sit in the front row doing crossword puzzles. "But you could not get anything past him," McCurry says. "If you tried to slip a little spin in, he'd suddenly erupt and say, 'Wait a minute!' "
Hume drew some flak at ABC by writing pieces for the conservative American Spectator, although he had also written for the more liberal New Republic, where Barnes was an editor. Feeling increasingly out of place, Hume was intrigued in 1996 when he heard that Rupert Murdoch was launching a cable network.
Hume had met Murdoch at a Spectator dinner at the Brasserie (and wound up giving him a ride) and knew Roger Ailes, the president of the new network, from his role in the 1988 Bush presidential campaign. Months after Kim Hume signed on with Fox as the D.C. bureau chief, her husband gave up his ABC career to join the fledgling network.
At Hume's last White House news conference, Clinton told him: "I think all of us think you have done an extraordinary, professional job under Republican and Democratic administrations alike."
In his new job as Fox's Washington managing editor, Hume began building a bureau for a network with few viewers. He had been in discussions about starting a Washington-based news show at 6 p.m., and in February 1998, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky furor, Kim Hume told her husband that the story was so hot he should start the program immediately. After checking with Ailes, Hume launched "Special Report" that night.
He was not only having fun, he was proud of his 28-year-old son, Sandy, who had just signed a contract as a Fox contributor and was writing for the Hill newspaper and several magazines.
On Feb. 22, Sandy Hume killed himself with a hunting rifle in his Arlington apartment. He had been arrested the night before for driving under the influence, had tried to hang himself in a D.C. jail cell and was released after being evaluated in a psychiatric hospital.
"It's a moment of truth when you realize what you believe," Hume says. "I realized I believed in God." He had been "a fallen Christian," Hume says, but "it was such a devastating loss I was thinking, 'How in the world am I going to get through this?' I had this odd thought that I would get a phone call: 'Brit, this is God.' I had this idea that somehow I was going to be okay and God was going to rescue me."
Why such a promising young journalist took his life was a mystery. "The proximate cause was the arrest for DUI, which he believed, for reasons that are not entirely clear, was going to be ruinous. . . . He was manifestly depressed about it."
Was Hume racked with parental guilt? "It was a great help to me that I'd had a very good relationship with him. I didn't have to live with a lot of regrets about how we'd gotten along."
Within six weeks, he had received 973 Mass cards. "I cannot tell you how buoyed I felt," Hume says. "I thought, this is the face of God. I just got on with my life." Hume now struggles "with trying to make Washington political journalism consistent with an effort to lead a Christian life."
He says he still thinks about his son every day.Thoughts of Retiring
Hume has come to dominate his time slot, with "Special Report" averaging nearly 1.2 million viewers. One of them is Charlie Gibson.
"He has a wonderful style which makes you want to hear what Brit has to say, in an age when so many people are in your face," Gibson says.
But Hume is well aware that some people, particularly on the left, view him as a conservative hack and Bush apologist.
"It bothers me a little bit," he says. "I think we look conservative to people who are not. . . . I knew the rap on us from Day One was going to be that we were a right-wing news outlet." But, he says, "I believed if we tried that, it would never work."
Hume and Fox News were among the first to jump on the charges by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth about Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam record, with Hume pushing the controversy day after day.
As the lead panelist on "Fox News Sunday," Hume said in August 2004 that the book by the Swift Boat Veterans "is a remarkably well-done document. It is full of detail. It is full of specifics. The charges that are being made of Kerry, of irresponsible and indeed in some cases mendacious conduct in his service in Vietnam, are made by people who were there."
The Center for Media and Public Affairs, in a 2004 study, found that "Special Report" coverage of President Bush was positive 60 percent of the time, while its evaluations of John Kerry were negative by a 5-to-1 margin. Hume says he was fair to Kerry and that the media gave far more scrutiny to Bush's National Guard record.
More recently, Hume said the press corps "behaved badly . . . like a pack of jackals" during the Cheney hunting accident furor. He also criticized an erroneous Associated Press report that said Bush had been warned that the New Orleans levees might be breached, when the word that a weather official used was "overtopped." "Much of the rest of the media fell for it hook, line and sinker," Hume said.
Part of what gives "Special Report" a right-leaning tone is its "all-star panel," the starters of which are the staunchly conservative Barnes, a Weekly Standard editor; Mort Kondracke, who positions himself as a moderate; and National Public Radio's Mara Liasson, who has described herself as a "girl reporter" who tries "to be right down the middle." Hume defends the lineup on loyalty grounds: "They were here when no one else cared."
Sometimes Hume can stretch things to make a point. In August 2003, he reported that "U.S. soldiers have less of a chance of dying from all causes in Iraq than citizens have of being murdered in California, which is roughly the same geographical size." The problem: California's population of 34 million people compared with 145,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Hume later agreed it was a "crude comparison."
As a boss, Hume is a tough taskmaster. He can be withering in his comments to young staffers, say those who know him, and has a strong temper, once throwing a pitcher of half-frozen orange juice against the wall. But, they say, his flashes of anger quickly pass.
"It's not easy being a reporter for Brit," Barnes says. "If he thinks the story is one way and you've done it differently, you're probably going to hear from him."
Correspondent Jim Angle, who anchors the show on Fridays, says: "Flabby writing and poor video are not welcome. He pays attention to every detail of the craft. He doesn't feel compelled to do what everyone else is doing."
Lately, Hume says, he has been "seriously considering" hanging it up when his contract expires in three years. His wife has nudged him into becoming a golf enthusiast, and they now play around the country.
For now, Hume will continue to take his journalistic swings, and seems to accept the fact that he is playing to a mostly partisan crowd.
"Am I going to be able to get devoted readers of the New York Times to watch Fox News? Maybe, but it would be heavy lifting," he says. "We are in some respects the antidote."