By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; C01
In "North by Northwest," cold and heartless bureaucrats in Washington realize they may have inadvertently sent a frivolous but innocent advertising man to his death, and one of them says, "It's so horribly sad -- why do I feel like laughing?" The dichotomy pops up all the time among observers of media, politics and the personalities who inhabit those spheres, and it probably always will, largely because people in those lines of work are, to state it in the most innocuous way possible, full of surprises.
Brit Hume was certainly full of something on "Fox News Sunday" this week. Hume, a part-time analyst at Fox since stepping down from his daily anchor role, sought to redefine the job of political pundit, apparently, when he stepped boldly up to the task of telling people what religious beliefs they ought to have. He prescribed in particular a remedial, therapeutic dose of Christianity for disgraced golfing champ Tiger Woods, a man whose lubricious private life has been haunting the headlines for weeks.
Noting that Woods has referred to himself as a Buddhist, Hume knocked his fellow "Fox News" panelists for mortified loops when he dissed about half a billion Buddhists on the planet with the remark, "I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith."
It sounded a little like one of those Verizon vs. AT&T commercials -- our brand is better than your brand -- except that Hume was comparing two of the world's great religions, not a couple of greedy communications conglomerates. Further, is it really his job to run around trying to drum up new business? He doesn't really have the authority, does he, unless one believes that every Christian by mandate must proselytize?
Oh, but there was much more to it. Since Buddhism is so lacking in news-you-can-use, Hume continued -- sinking into his own mouth-made mire -- "My message to Tiger would be: Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world." Whom did he sound more like -- Mary Poppins on the joys of a tidy room, or Ron Popeil on the glories of some amazing potato peeler?
You could almost hear the gears of YouTube turning as he spoke, and imagine the writers on "Saturday Night Live" trying to find ways other than the painfully obvious to satirize the moment and what it represents.
The easiest mistake to make would be to associate Hume's off-the-cuff, off-the-wall remark with the pathology of Fox News, a cherished target of the left just as the left is a cherished target of certain Fox personalities. Some of us cling to our faith that there is no institutional bias at the network, and that the business of Fox, to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, is business.
Darts of derision should be aimed at Hume, not at his employer or at Fox News as a social force. Before one gets too carried away with Brit-bashing, however, it's worth a Google or two to investigate the origins of Hume's seemingly newfound fervor. Is he really known far-and-wide for advocating religious fixes for scandals and furors? He did say, at the 2008 Republican convention, "I'm 65, for God's sake," but that was a mere aside, not a statement of policy.
Earlier, though, when it was still the 20th century, Hume discussed, in an interview, his spiritual epiphany and what motivated it. "I came to Christ in a way that was very meaningful to me," he said; it was in the aftermath of his son's death by suicide in 1998. It would be indefensibly insensitive to mock Hume for his beliefs, especially considering the way he came to them, but that still doesn't mean one must cheer him on as he tries to turn a bully pulpit into a pulpit, period.
In a way that many others had spoken of this particular faith, Hume seemed so bolstered by Christianity that he just had to go tell it on the mountain. And the golf course. And Fox news-talk shows.
Whatever his motivations, and however his statement regarding Woods reflected Hume's own emotional turmoil, the remark will probably rank, even only a few days into January, as one of the most ridiculous of the year. It tends at the least to banish any wayward hopes that the looniness of the Bawdy Aughties is over; we're not out of the woods, or the Woods, yet. Oh no, the madness will go on and on and on, at least until some sanctimonious busybody takes it upon himself to go even roguer than Hume.
If Hume's remark is going to turn out to be a mere starting point, where in the name of all that's holy (really holy, genuinely holy) is the finishing line going to find us? Or leave us?
Hume has a message for Woods; lots of people will have a message for Hume. First off, apologize. You gotta. Just say you are a man who is comfortable with his faith, so comfortable that sometimes he gets a wee bit carried away with it. If Hume wants to do the satellite-age equivalent of going door-to-door and spreading what he considers the gospel, he should do it on his own time, not try to cross-pollinate religion and journalism and use Fox facilities to do it.
At the same Republican convention where Hume bemoaned his advancing years, he spoke of knowing when to leave the party and go home. "I'd like to walk away while I'm still doing okay," he said, "and not have people say, 'He was fading.' " It's easy to understand the sentiment, but Hume ought to know that what people are saying right now is a whole lot worse than that he's fading.