By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn.
In the Fox News skybox atop a packed arena, Brit Hume rolls his eyes as the giant video monitor below fills with black-and-white images during Fred Thompson's convention oration.
"Baby pictures of John McCain? What in the world are they doing? Oh, this is just atrocious," he grumbles to his colleagues on the set.
Moments later, Hume slips off his half-glasses and turns to the camera as lifelong Democrat Joe Lieberman wraps up his speech. "He said he is not Michael Moore's favorite Democrat," Hume tells viewers. "The truth of the matter is, he's probably not many Democrats' favorite Democrat."
Hume traffics in wry humor and droll observation, a low-key style that belies the voracious interest he has always had in politics. But that appetite has faded, which is why the 32-year television veteran has just anchored his last convention.
In cable news, says Hume, "you work quite hard. I've got to be in there with my hands. I'm 65, for God's sake. I don't want to do all that stuff anymore." He is retiring at year's end as Fox's Washington managing editor but will continue as a part-time pundit.
As a conservative who doesn't hesitate to accuse much of the mainstream media of left-leaning bias, Hume stands at the crossroads of an increasingly shrill debate over political coverage. And he sounds worn down by the constant battering.
"It's dispiriting," he says. "This is just partisan poison, and after a while you get tired of covering it."
His wife, Kim Hume, who retired two years ago as Fox's Washington bureau chief, echoes that sentiment. "Sometimes it's so ugly that you have to leave the scene," she says. "Brit is just ready. He's accomplished what he wants to accomplish and he's ready to slow down."
Despite the exciting twists and turns of this year's presidential marathon, Hume sounds underwhelmed. While he enjoyed the hoopla surrounding Barack Obama's acceptance speech at Invesco Field in Denver, "I'd heard it all before. . . . When you get right down to it, the substance of what he's for, he's a pretty conventional politician."
John McCain doesn't get Hume's heart racing, either. He says McCain "kind of won by default," and admits he was taken aback by the Arizona senator's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate and considers her a risky pick. "I got that completely wrong," he says. "I expected a safe choice," not Alaska's rookie governor.
Hume has a history with Obama's running mate. He wrote an article for the New Republic in 1986 -- headlined "Shut Up, Senator Biden" -- in which he called the Delaware senator a "windbag." A couple of years later, Hume says, Joe Biden approached him at a Senate hearing and said, "You know what? You were right."
Hume covered his first convention in 1976, when he had just joined ABC News and, as a print reporter trying to make the transition to television, "boy, was I bad." Hume did little more than cover protests outside the Democratic gathering in New York, but "I remember thinking, 'Man, this is a big deal.' People would say, 'Brit, you on the floor?' I wasn't even in the building."
But the experience convinced him that "if you were going to do anything and be anyone in this business, you had to be a player at the conventions."
What he really coveted, Hume says, was "one of those ridiculous-looking headsets" that the top anchors and correspondents got to wear. He scored one at the 1980 Democratic convention, where as a floor reporter he grabbed Hamilton Jordan, a top aide to President Jimmy Carter, to talk about the rift with defeated rival Ted Kennedy. A delegate who was a college buddy of Hume's blocked the aisle so no other reporter could get to Jordan.
After a long stint as ABC's White House correspondent, Hume joined Rupert Murdoch's fledgling cable news channel right after its 1996 launch. His profile grew along with the network's ratings, and in recent years Hume's "Special Report" has easily won the cable competition at 6 p.m., drawing a daily average of 1.5 million viewers last month.
Asked about Fox's conservative reputation, Hume says many viewers fail to distinguish between its news and opinion shows. "Bill O'Reilly does a great program that is quite appropriately about him -- the things he finds interesting, the views he holds. People who don't like Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity ought not to condemn our news product."
But while Hume's program, by design, is not personality-driven, he is not shy about offering a conservative take or scolding the mainstream media. On Wednesday, he chided the New York Times for failing to correct an article saying that Palin once belonged to the Alaska Independence Party, although it did correct the type of stick from a Kenyan village that Obama keeps in his office: "a leopard-beating stick, not a tiger-beating stick." (Instead of a correction, the Times ran a story explaining that party officials had acknowledged misinforming news organizations.) Hume then contrasted Us Weekly's cover on Michelle Obama ("Why Barack Loves Her") with this week's cover on Palin ("Babies, Lies and Scandal").
Fox has drawn a larger audience than any broadcast or cable network for this week's Republican convention -- including 9.2 million viewers Wednesday night -- while CNN finished on top during the Democratic convention, beating the broadcast networks on the final night. Hume is not surprised by the numbers: "There is a perception among a lot of Democrats and liberals that CNN is a congenial place, and a lot of Republicans and conservatives feel that way about Fox."
He says he still feels the ratings pressure every day, and has watched with envy as his wife has taken up a life of golf, tennis, yoga and Bible study. "I've never seen her happier," he says. "I'm kind of eager to join her."
Some friends find it hard to believe that Hume is giving up his high-profile perch.
"You can't retire," Hume recalls CBS producer Rick Kaplan saying when the two men bumped into each other. When he asked why not, Kaplan said, "Because you're on top of your game."
"What better time?" Hume replied.
The answer hints at the underlying reason why he made St. Paul his convention swan song: He has always been motivated by a fear of failure.
"I'd like to walk away while I'm still doing okay and not have people say 'he was fading,' " Hume says.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."