Alan Colmes is being ignored.
He walks into La Colline on a recent morning, accompanied by a Fox News publicist. The Capitol Hill restaurant is heavy with members of Congress, staffers and lobbyists, none of whom notices the co-host of a top-rated cable news show in their midst.
Colmes, 53, is the designated mild liberal on Fox News's prime-time debate show, "Hannity & Colmes," the ideological and stylistic counterbalance to bulldog conservative Sean Hannity. He's in town to promote his new book, "Red, White & Liberal: How Left Is Right & Right Is Wrong."
At the moment, he is here for breakfast, if anyone ever gets around to seating him. Finally, he sees the reporter he is to meet and walks across the dining room and sits down. It takes 20 minutes for someone to drop off a menu.
Now, Colmes is trying to get the attention of a busboy scurrying past the table.
"Um, 'scuse me," Colmes says. To no avail.
"Hi, yes," Colmes says a few minutes later to another man pouring water.
He wants to order, but no one hears him. He is unfazed, a friendly, well-mannered presence -- all the qualities you'd want in a breakfast companion, if not an ideological warrior on cable news.
But that's the beauty of writing a book. Colmes finally gets the floor to himself. No interruptions from Hannity, no bulldozings.
To distill: "Red, White & Liberal" is a paean to the left-of-center obvious. Colmes thinks Bill Clinton was a great president. He thinks the Bush administration's war on terror is being exploited for political gain by the Republicans. He says conservatives own no monopoly on patriotism. Publishers Weekly calls "Red, White & Liberal" "a blandly pious 'can't we all get along' homily without interruption."
Colmes fills the book with hate e-mails he has received. ("If you died I would celebrate.") And many of these same e-mailers are also, apparently, writing customer reviews at Amazon.com. ("Buy Yourself Something More Useful . . . Like a Lobotomy.")
Although it's not uncommon for unabashed ideologues such as Ted Kennedy or Rush Limbaugh to elicit strong feelings, they generally draw their harshest heat from people who don't agree with them. Not Alan Colmes. He is a liberal who draws ire from liberals. They accuse him, in so many words, of playing Bambi to Hannity's Godzilla.
In his book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," Al Franken mocks Colmes by rendering every mention of his name in tiny type. Franken writes that "Colmes' duties as co-host of 'Hannity & Colmes' include adding toner to the copiers and printers [and] loofah-ing Roger Ailes in his personal steam room." Colmes dismisses Franken as a "liberal satirist." Such knocks, he says, are consistent with the belief among many liberals that Fox News is a conservative network -- a conclusion he rejects. "If you're going to make the argument that Fox is conservative, you can't make it very easily unless you diminish my role," Colmes says.
Unlike, say, CNN's Paul Begala, Colmes says his career has been as a broadcaster, not as a politician or advocate. Colmes, who like Hannity was raised on Long Island, has hosted a string of successful radio talk shows in New York. Fox News hired Hannity -- himself a radio talk show host -- before Colmes. (The show's unofficial in-house title was "Hannity & LTBD" -- "Liberal to Be Determined.") Colmes was hired partly at the suggestion of Hannity, who knew Colmes from New York radio circles.
With his deep voice and burrowing style, Hannity is adept at outrage. He talks fast, in emphatic bursts, and has a knack for getting the last word. Colmes, conversely, has a singsong voice and is content to remain silent for long stretches. ("We gotta get a break" is often his last word before a commercial.)
"It's not exactly a fair fight," says Laura Nichols, senior vice president of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank run by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.
In a survey by the liberal watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Media over two weeks last summer, Hannity and conservative guests spoke 2,768 lines compared with 2,004 for Colmes and liberal guests.
"I don't judge my effectiveness by how many words I say," Colmes says of the survey. It's more difficult to argue as a liberal in a debate format, he asserts. This is especially true in a medium that rewards punchiness and sound bites. "I think liberals often see nuances in things," Colmes says. "Conservatives tend to see things in black and white. It gives them an air of certainty and conviction that might make them more comfortable to watch."
In the course of an hour-long breakfast, Colmes frequently invokes the success of "Hannity & Colmes" as a defense of his style and ability. Now in its seventh season, the show is consistently the highest-rated program in the 9 to 10 p.m. slot within the small universe of cable news programming.
Liberal critics dismiss this popularity by comparing its appeal to that of watching a wolf devour a pussycat. But Colmes is not entirely without liberal defenders.
"I think his views are strong, even if his style isn't," says Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist who has appeared on the show several times. She praises Colmes for arguing in a reasoned and civil manner, "even if his arguments aren't necessarily heard by anyone." She also points out that Colmes is a rare liberal voice in a talk-TV maw that's dominated by conservatives. "Alan's basically all we have to work with right now," Brazile says.
Liberal critics are also quick to indict Colmes for his relative popularity among conservatives. The back cover of "Red, White & Liberal" includes testimonial blurbs from Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich (in addition to Bill Clinton and Ralph Nader). "A great read, even for conservatives like me," Kemp writes. "Alan Colmes is definitely my favorite liberal with whom to argue," Gingrich writes.
"Need we say more?" says Nichols, the think tank executive.
Theoretically, yes, but we gotta get a break.