Before Hugh Hewitt would answer my questions, he had a condition: Through the producer of The Hugh Hewitt Show—his 15-year-old radio program that touts 2 million weekly listeners—he informed me that I would need to first answer his questions, on air.
Hours later, I was live on his show. “I got a note from my producer today, associate producer Marlon, saying you want to meet up with me and do a profile on me, which I think is about as dull as possible,” Hewitt said, “but is that true?”
“That’s true,” I replied, “and he told me you only would chat with me if I chatted with you first.”
“That’s it,” Hewitt said. “That’s my rule on profiles, because I always want to get the reciprocity going, because we can now find you and play this tape endlessly, and you answered two questions straight that should ruin your reputation in journalism.”
The two questions Hewitt was referring to are staples of his show, and he poses them to just about every first-time guest: Have you read The Looming Tower, the 2006 book by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright about al-Qaida and September 11? And second: Was Alger Hiss a Soviet spy?
This is decidedly not standard conservative radio fare; but Hewitt, a professor of constitutional law who often sounds the part, isn’t a conventional right-wing talk-radio host (and he prefers the term “center-right” anyway). His program, which he has long called “National Public Radio for conservatives,” is the brainier cousin of the shout-fests that blast out of many AM stations.
Conservative radio personality Hugh Hewitt in the studio in California. (Slav Zatoka)
On this particular afternoon, Hewitt was feeling playful; two llamas were running loose in Arizona, so the versions of the questions I got—”Have you read The Looming Llama?” and “Was Alger Hiss a Soviet llama?”—were variations on his typical theme. (My answers: “I think that was streaming over the Internet live this afternoon” and “I think he was convicted of perjury; I’m not sure about his llama status.”) But, normally, Hewitt takes these two questions quite seriously. “It’s a great reveal to me. It tells me everything I need to know,” he says later, explaining why he asks the Alger Hiss question. “I find out if somebody is knowledgeable and honest. And if someone says I know who Hiss is and I don’t know whether or not he was a spy, they are either very lazy or they’re not telling me the truth. And the reason they don’t want to tell me the truth is the Left hasn’t let go. They can’t let go of that.”
The day before, Hewitt had posed the real version of his Looming Tower question to a far more influential guest: Jeb Bush. (Bush said he had not read it, and Hewitt responded by telling him, “I think it’s the most important book on the war.”) It was one in a series of aggressive but intellectual inquiries he posed to the former governor; Hewitt began the interview by asking whether Bush, if elected, would be overly cautious about launching a “third Bush war.” (“I wouldn’t,” Bush replied, and a cascade of headlines followed.) Hewitt finished up with an even more pointed query: “Governor, what’s the message to the newly emerging democracies that the world’s oldest democracy keeps recycling Bushes and Clintons and Clintons and Bushes? Does it send the wrong message to the Nigerias and the Indias of the world about dynasty?”
These were hard-hitting questions, but it was also easy to see why Bush had chosen to make Hewitt’s show his first stop on the talk-radio circuit since he publicly began his nascent presidential campaign. While other talk-radio personalities like Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh have been tearing Bush limb from limb (Ingraham: “Jeb and Hillary could run on the same ticket”; Limbaugh: “That ticket would be a moderate wet dream”), the back and forth with Hewitt was guaranteed to be high-minded. “He is tough but fair, as they say,” notes Tim Miller, a senior adviser for Bush’s PAC, explaining the reasoning behind debuting Bush on Hewitt’s show.
In 2005, The New Yorker bestowed upon Hewitt—who, in addition to being a nationally syndicated radio host, has authored more than a dozen books and is a weekly columnist for both The Washington Examiner and Townhall.com—the title of “Most Famous Conservative Journalist Whom Liberals Have Never Heard Of.” But to the extent that this is still true today, it won’t be the case for long. The day before the Bush interview, Salem Media Group, the conservative company that produces Hewitt’s program, had announced a partnership with CNN on three Republican presidential debates this fall. And they named Hewitt as the first conservative figure who will get to ask questions of the candidates.
His selection was widely praised, inside the party and out. “This. Is. Awesome,” GOP strategist Rick Wilson tweeted. McKay Coppins, a senior political writer at BuzzFeed, predicted on Twitter that Hewitt “is probably the most likely to ask a debate question that knocks a candidate out of the race.”
One month earlier, Hewitt had notched another big achievement by breaking one of the biggest political stories of the year: that Mitt Romney wouldn’t be running for president. Hewitt not only was the first to definitively report that Romney was out—contradicting inaccurate reports from The Daily Beast and Bloomberg—but he had the full script of what Romney was about to tell his top supporters.
Hugh Hewitt, in short, is having a moment. He is not the most-heard talk-radio host, not by a long shot, with an audience one-tenth the size of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, according to Talkers, an industry trade magazine. Yet, as the 2016 cycle gets underway, he appears to be emerging as the preferred pundit of the Republican establishment—a sort of bridge between the conservative grassroots and elite Beltway politics. After my appearance on his show, Hewitt agreed to talk to me about his perch—and, as luck would have it, he was coming to Washington that very weekend: He’d just been booked for Meet the Press.
HEWITT, 59, ARRIVES a few minutes early to the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton. He had been upstairs taking a planned mid-morning nap after a red-eye flight to Washington from Southern California, where he records his show. He is wearing thick-rimmed glasses, a similar cut to the style Rick Perry has been sporting of late, a blue sweater, a full head of white hair, and the demeanor of a friendly academic.
Hewitt appeared on Meet the Press earlier this month with New York Times reporter Helene Cooper. Unlike many conservatives from outside Washington, he doesn’t actively despise Beltway culture. (William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
“There are two kinds of people in our business,” Hewitt says of the talk-radio world. “There are people in our business who came out of the disc-jockey side who have no discernible ideology. They’re there for ratings. “… And then there are people who came out of the side of the business where they believe things and they enjoy talking about them.”
Hewitt is firmly in the latter camp: He sees radio journalism as a means to a political end. He talks about “my business, my passion—which is to build a better America using my platforms as a means of doing that, impacting politics in the right way.” He was an outspoken Romney backer in 2008 and 2012, but this cycle, he says, “I have no dog in this hunt.” Instead, he has cultivated friendships in nearly every campaign, if not with every principal. When Sen. Ted Cruz came to Los Angeles to meet with a group of Romney bundlers last year, it was Hewitt who moderated the event. “Rick Santorum, he trusts me. I think Rand Paul trusts me. Ted trusts me. Scott Walker I’ve sat down with a number of times. [John] Kasich is a friend,” Hewitt says. “But I’ll ask them the toughest question I know how to ask.”
He gets the chance because almost all of them appear on his show. In the last week or so, he’d had Bush on, plus Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Donald Trump had stopped by and Hewitt had asked about his reading habits, eliciting a tongue-twisting answer that began, “Well, I read a lot,” and ended with, “I just don’t get to read very much.” Says Hewitt, “I have credibility with just about everyone that I’m not going to blow them up”—at least not unfairly. Or, as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus puts it, “It goes down to trust.”
But it’s not only conservatives who seem to trust him. When David Axelrod, President Obama’s longtime chief strategist, went on the publicity circuit to promote his recent book, his first conservative talk-radio stop was with Hewitt. (Fox’s Bill O’Reilly was Axelrod’s first conservative TV appearance.) “Let’s be honest—and this isn’t limited to talk radio on the Right—there are those for whom the answers are just interludes for them to catch their breath between questions. I think he asks questions genuinely in pursuit of answers,” Axelrod told me. “We live in a time where it is very hard for people to reach across the chasm and make connections with folks on the other side and treat each other like people, and I felt like Hugh did.” Axelrod stayed on the show for more than an hour.
Hewitt—who grew up in Warren, Ohio—may be comfortable with liberals in part because he has been surrounded by them since his college days at Harvard, where his roommates included Mark Gearan, who would go on to serve as President Clinton’s communications director, and Dan Poneman, who served as deputy Energy secretary under President Obama. “If you’ve got lefties in your life, you’re not going to hate liberals,” Hewitt says. “They’re just people. They’re just wrong.”
He arrived at Harvard three weeks after Richard Nixon’s resignation, a tough time to be a young Republican if ever there was one. “A college Republican was like a curiosity,” Poneman recalls. “He was just the way he is now. He was unabashed; he was bold; he was smart.” (Fun fact: Their adviser as undergrads was then-grad-student Alan Keyes, the Republican whom Obama beat to win his Senate seat in 2004.)
Gearan, whom Hewitt called “my closest friend in the world,” says he would use Hewitt as a conservative touchstone during his days developing messaging for the Clinton White House. “I would have a bead on where the Right was in my conversations,” Gearan says. “I don’t know that we’ve convinced each other, but I have learned a lot.”
After college, Hewitt worked as an editorial assistant for Richard Nixon, helping him research his book The Real War. Hewitt subsequently attended law school at the University of Michigan, where he was classmates with Anne Gust, now the wife of Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown. “I think Anne is among the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I’d like her to run for the U.S. Senate. I might actually support a Democrat, if Anne ran,” Hewitt says. “And when Jerry steps down, I’d like Anne to run for governor because she’s just so smart. She can run California.” (For the record, Hewitt also says he hopes Condoleezza Rice runs for statewide office, to perhaps give the state’s woeful GOP a fighting chance.)
Following law school, Hewitt went to clerk for the D.C. Circuit, but the judge he was working for fell ill, so he did brief stints with a series of other judges: Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among them. He soon joined the Reagan administration, where he worked in the White House counsel’s office with a young lawyer named John Roberts, now chief justice of the Supreme Court.
In 1989, he moved to California to help Nixon open his presidential library, serving as executive director, before transitioning into radio and then cohosting a PBS show in Los Angeles. He launched The Hugh Hewitt Show in the summer of 2000.
Almost since the start, his radio program has featured a regular segment with Erwin Chemerinsky, a leading liberal constitutional scholar. Hewitt himself is still fascinated by the law and is actually a practicing lawyer (his area of expertise: endangered-species law). “It’s far more substantive and I think it’s far more sophisticated than most media things I’ve ever been a part of,” says Chemerinsky, who typically appears paired with a conservative legal scholar. “He’s always well prepared; he’s genial; he’s fair.”
“He’s a great voice for the Republican Party to use from the perspective of the Republican Party,” Chemerinsky adds. These days, the GOP leadership seems to agree.
IF REPUBLICAN pundits fall on a scale from the bombastic right-winger Rush Limbaugh on one end to the civilized centrist David Brooks on the other, then Hewitt is Limbaugh-like in his ideology but Brooks-like in his presentation. In other words, he’s an intellectual’s ideologue. “He sees himself as a responsible alternative to so much of what’s out there,” Gearan says. When I tell Hewitt that one Republican I spoke with called him a “gentleman’s conservative,” he smiles: “Oh, I like that.”
Hewitt is popular enough with the base to have hosted a nationally syndicated show for 15 years—and safe enough for the establishment to thrust him into the debate spotlight this fall. In fact, it’s hard to find a Hewitt hater anywhere within the GOP. “Hugh’s hitting a peak,” says David Webb, a tea-party leader and now host of The David Webb Show on SiriusXM. “He’s frankly gained the credibility. It’s about doing what you do well, gaining the credibility, and people come to you and say you have a voice and you have an audience.”
Hewitt is Limbaugh-like in his ideology but Brooks-like in his presentation.
He has a knack for landing on the most conservative possible position a political pragmatist could take. On immigration, for instance, Hewitt takes the same stance as those Republicans who are concerned about permanently alienating Latino voters: He’s for allowing immigrants who are in the country illegally to stay, albeit without citizenship or voting rights. “We’re going to let you stay here, and your kids are citizens,” he says. “Let’s get on with it.” He washes this somewhat conciliatory position down with hard-line rhetoric more familiar to the talk-radio circuit: “We ought to build one friggin’ big wall,” he says. “A big fence, tall, broad, double-sided, with a gate.” At the same time, Hewitt is also agitating for an all-Spanish-language debate between Marco Rubio and Bush at the Western Conservative Summit this coming June. “It would be a culture-bending event,” Hewitt tells me excitedly, “and people would watch it even if they didn’t understand a word of it.”
He treads a similar line on gay marriage. He opposes it—”marriage between a man and woman is ordained by God for the happiness of humankind,” he wrote in 2012—but also avoids notes of hateful invective. “This is not to say that single parents, or same-sex couples cannot be terrific parents,” he went on. “They can be, often far better at it than married couples who are terrible, horrible parents from whose ‘care’ children must be removed.”
More than anything else, though, Hewitt is a foreign policy hawk. He didn’t serve in the armed forces, but he married into a military family, tying the knot with his wife, whom he always calls “the fetching Mrs. Hewitt” on air, in the chapel at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base. “I’d take Reagan’s foreign policy 100 percent straight line,” Hewitt says. “Peace through strength. Give me a 600-ship Navy, spend 5 percent of GDP on a national defense, whether you need it or not, because you always need it.” He summarizes his philosophy this way: “Have more of everything than anyone, and no one will mess around with you.”
This fall, he will likely quiz the GOP candidates on national-defense issues. “I am a national security guy, first and foremost,” he says. When Bush was on his show, Hewitt pressed him about the size of America’s submarine fleet. Bush dodged, saying, “To be honest with you, I can’t give you an informed answer to that.” He and the rest of the GOP field would be smart to prepare for a follow-up, along with an opinion on exactly how many aircraft carriers the United States needs. “I expect our presidents to know about Navy strength,” Hewitt says. “I don’t know that any of them do.”
What’s not likely to be on Hewitt’s debate docket are questions about candidates’ religious views. He is a devout “Evangelical Roman Catholic Presbyterian” and a social conservative, but he has specifically ruled out questions about evolution, for instance. “I don’t believe in asking about personal belief. It’s so antithetical to the founding. We’re not supposed to do that,” he told Bloomberg recently. And he has criticized ABC’s George Stephanopoulos for his 2012 debate question about states banning contraception. In other words, social issues are out, and security is in—just the way the GOP elites want it.
HEWITT’S RELATIONSHIP with the mainstream media is complicated. While he views the mainstream press as clearly biased toward the Left, he also uses it to aggressively promote his own show. “As soon as you’re done with the interview, I tell [my producers], push this out—that’s the news, and that will attract the attention to the full interview,” Hewitt says. He regularly produces transcripts of his Q&As. “There’s a dearth of substantive transcript in audio,” he says. “I’m feeding your need.” (Limbaugh similarly puts out transcripts, though often they’re just of him talking.) But even as Hewitt relies on the establishment press to amplify his conversations, he also explains that he puts out full transcripts because “you don’t want the media to filter for you what [the guest] said.”
His encounters with individual reporters from the mainstream media and the world of liberal punditry can be complicated, as well. In 1990, when Hewitt was executive director for the soon-to-be launched Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, he got into hot water for telling a Los Angeles Times reporter, “I don’t think we’d ever open the doors to Bob Woodward. He’s not a responsible journalist.” Today, Hewitt says it was simply a “throwaway line.” The idea of screening researchers was quickly scrapped. Hewitt sighs, “It will be in my obituary.” (He has had it in for the Times—where I used to work—for years. One of the last things he said to me before I departed the Ritz was, “For an L.A. Times alum, they didn’t ruin you.”)
Conservative radio personality Hugh Hewitt in his California studio. (Slav Zatoka)
Hewitt frequently brings liberal and mainstream journalists on his show. Sometimes, these encounters go poorly. In one classic case, from 2006, Hewitt and the late White House correspondent Helen Thomas were sparring about journalistic credentials when she blurted out, “God knows what you are.” More recently, both Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and David Corn of Mother Jones came on (separately) to speak about Corn’s piece disputing O’Reilly’s claim to have been in a “war zone” in the early 1980s. The Corn interview was hostile from the start and ended with a hang-up more than 40 minutes in.
Yet often Hewitt’s interviews with nonconservatives are respectful and genuinely engaging. The late Christopher Hitchens was a recurring guest and occasionally would appear for the full three hours, as he did in 2010 to discuss his autobiography. Columnist E.”ŠJ. Dionne has made multiple appearances (“my favorite lefty,” Hewitt has called him), as has Jonathan Alter (“one of my lefty radio pals”). Introducing Alter during a 2013 interview, Hewitt declared, “My team needs to read the other team’s playbook, and Jonathan has it.” These days, almost every Friday, he has on Meet the Press host Chuck Todd. And unlike many conservatives from outside Washington, he doesn’t actively despise Beltway culture. He says, “I love green rooms,” and notes that Mark Leibovich “has been on the show a lot.” (Indeed, Hewitt had Leibovich on for the full three hours when his book on life in Washington, This Town, came out.)
Hewitt’s approach to dealing with the mainstream press is, essentially, eager and wary at the same time. And so, when journalists ask to profile him, his typical response is the same one he gave me: He’ll talk to them, but first they need to come on his show. “It’s a screening device,” Hewitt tells me. “It is a test about good intention. If someone is writing a genuine profile—I’m not that interesting, I’ve been profiled a lot—but if they won’t come on first, I think that they have an agenda that they’re hiding. And a lot of people turn me down.”
In 2005, when he was approached about a profile by The New Yorker‘s Nicholas Lemann, Hewitt agreed to cooperate only if Lemann would participate in a Hewitt-written profile of Lemann. (“Mutual-assured destruction,” Hewitt jokes now.) Hewitt would later trail Lemann for two days around Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism—”the highest temple of a religion in decline,” as Hewitt would describe it in the pages of The Weekly Standard—where Lemann was the new dean. The piece ended up being less about Lemann and more about, in Hewitt’s words, “the collapse of credibility of the mainstream media.” It doesn’t get much more meta than Hewitt producing a piece for a conservative magazine about the decline of objective journalism, which centers on a nonpartisan journalist who is in the midst of profiling him for a mainstream magazine.
THE DAY HEWITT broke the news that Romney wasn’t going to run for president, he hadn’t exactly been burning up the phones to score the exclusive. A Romney confidant—”a close source to the governor’s family,” Hewitt says—had come to him, perhaps knowing Hewitt had championed Romney before, perhaps remembering Hewitt’s flattering 2007 book (A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Every American Should Know About Mitt Romney), or perhaps recalling a Politico Magazine piece on Romney he cowrote last year titled, “Third Time’s the Charm.”
“It was a give,” Hewitt says of how he obtained Romney’s prepared remarks. “I think the intention was to make sure that his statement was fully put in one place.” He posted the transcript in its entirety at hughhewitt.com, and it zoomed to the top of the Drudge Report while garnering an avalanche of links from Twitter, Facebook, and across the Web.
From the 2012 Republican nominee (Romney) to the front-runner in 2016 (Bush), everyone in the GOP elite, it seems, is a fan of Hugh Hewitt right now. Priebus, the RNC chairman, is no exception. When I flagged him down in the halls of the Conservative Political Action Conference to ask about Hewitt’s growing influence, he stopped and gestured to a man standing with him. “This is his son!” he exclaimed. It turns out James Hewitt is an RNC deputy press secretary, assisting the party with outreach to right-leaning media outlets. As for the elder Hewitt, Priebus wasn’t stingy with his praise. “He’s a star on talk radio and a star in the conservative media circles and someone who I think is reasonable but tough,” he told me. “And I think he’s very well respected no matter where you fit in in our party.”
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