Hannity: A Fox in the Crowd

Sean Hannity, the 42-year-old Fox News star, says he gets no special kick from hammering the lefties on his television program. If they squirm, plead, cry, scream, it’s strictly business.

“It has no impact,” Mr. Hannity said, then made a chopping motion and added a sound effect: ” Shht, shht . Doesn’t faze me.”

So if lefty radio host, humorist and professional adversary Al Franken wanted to characterize Mr. Hannity as a liar and worse, as he did in his best-selling book, or a “schoolyard bully, narrow-minded, amoral, no compassion, phony to the core”-as he did in a recent interview-Mr. Hannity just wasn’t going to respond.

“I don’t take any of this stuff personally,” he said. “If I don’t respect you, it doesn’t matter what you think of me. And I don’t respect him.”

On Monday, Aug. 9, Mr. Hannity charged into the Fox News “war room” like a Big 10 college football coach, coiled and jocular, ready to spar with the world. He wore a blue blazer, no tie, tasseled loafers. He cracked open a can of Coke, loudly, and opened with a verbal towel-snap: “You’re not a liberal, are you?” he said.

But Mr. Hannity balked when he was asked to really let it rip. “This isn’t about me. I know it’s a ‘me’ business. But it’s not about me, it’s about what I believe in more.”

Nevertheless, Sean Hannity, the almost-cute, beetle-browed, pug-nosed persona from TV, was coming into view: God-fearing, flag-loving, contemptuous of liberal media. Every night Mr. Hannity, author of the best-selling Let Freedom Ring and Deliver Us from Evil , punched the air with Reaganisms, glowing with the right of Excalibur, until forced to reel with shock and disgust at the diabolical guest.

“I’m very consistent in my views,” he said. “The left is out of control, reckless and dangerous.”

End of story, mister.

But even if Mr. Hannity is a Gary Trudeau nightmare, a Yosemite Sam–tempered version of a right-wing believer-he’s a pro-life, pro-war, pro-Bush, Cadillac Escalade driver who wants to drill for oil in Alaska and anywhere else as well-it seemed as though he was exactly what the American public wanted out of cable news. In eight years, Mr. Hannity, a former house-painter turned Atlanta radio personality turned right-wing videologue, has found the perfect pH balance of frat-house flippancy, suburban masculinity and red-state rage-with only the Gollum-like presence of liberal foil Alan Colmes to hedge against a howling David Cronenbergian conclusion to every television show-to make Hannity and Colmes the No. 2 program in cable news, with 1.5 million viewers a night, right behind the titular figurehead of the fair and balanced Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly.

Mr. Hannity said he had no heroes in the TV world.

“I can’t think of anybody in particular,” he said, not really thinking about it. “I try to be myself. For better or for worse.” But it was hard to believe he hadn’t studied somebody, Mr. O’Reilly or Morton Downey Jr. or Joe Pyne or some combination of them. The business plan is one-stop opinion shopping: a three-hour radio show, best-selling books, a Web site, mugs, T-shirts. If they’re really smart, there’s no overstep, but very often there is. Mr. Hannity even has a DVD in September, The Hannitizing of America , featuring outtakes from his speaking tour.

And you had to wonder: Like Cher dumping Sonny, could Mr. Hannity finally slough off the exquisitely untelegenic Mr. Colmes-hired on Mr. Hannity’s own advice in 1996-and show the full Hannity by matching the big guy, Mr. O’Reilly?

“Sure,” said Bill Shine, the vice president of production at Fox News and the onetime producer of Hannity & Colmes .

“Yes, he could. But it couldn’t be the same show he’s doing now. Bill O’Reilly looks at things on a case-by-case basis, and so does Sean-but Sean, for the most part, is conservative, and he believes the conservative side of much more of the issues than Bill ever did.”

In 2003, in an interview with The Observer , Mr. O’Reilly praised Hannity & Colmes but also dropped a little zinger: “Haven’t evolved a lot, but it’s working.”

Indeed, there were signs that Mr. Hannity was edging toward a solo act. He and his partner don’t hang out together like they used to. “We don’t have as much time as we might like,” said Mr. Colmes. “We used to a lot more.”

Did Mr. Hannity see the need to evolve?

“You’d have to ask him what he thinks,” he said, referring to Mr. O’Reilly, whose name elicited no perceptible warmth. “I think the show has changed yearly, daily, weekly. I mean, we’re constantly tweaking it to make it better and better.”

But Mr. Hannity said he wasn’t entertaining bigger, grander things. He said he was an incredibly lucky guy who considered his show a “public service” and hoped Fox News chief Roger Ailes felt the same. “Whatever my boss wants me to do, I’m glad to have the opportunity,” he said.

And if CNN offered him millions? “Nope. Wouldn’t do it,” he said. “Where was CNN in 1996? They weren’t knocking on my door. No, I love being here. I love working for Roger and I love being here.”

In fact, Mr. Hannity said that if, in 2014, he was still hacking away with Mr. Colmes, “I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

However, he also didn’t count out a calling in politics.

“Yeah, but it’s not going to happen for a long time,” he said.

As a TV pundit, Mr. Hannity may be a two-trick pony, but his secret super-power is his ability to puff himself up like a blowfish-he looks wider and thicker than his six feet, 190 pounds-and punctuate opinion with his handsome linebacker’s face. “You can get a lot more done with a lot less said,” he said. “A facial expression, something like that, can be very effective in making a point.”

His signature has always been the eyebrows that curl into a belligerent twinkle-hands aloft, pushing back, aggressive, pencil in right hand-as he wears down his guests with bruising repetition. His on-air blowout with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Aug. 3 was typical of Mr. Hannity’s debating style.

Mr. Hannity had latched onto a statement in Mr. Kennedy’s recent book, Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy , in which Mr. Kennedy recalled the often-used quote from Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg trials about how easy it is to get the populace to go along with a war by battering them with patriotic fervor. While Mr. Kennedy attempted to explain his views on mercury poisoning in New York State’s waterways, Mr. Hannity hammered Mr. Kennedy for his perceived offense against Mr. Bush.

Here is the Mr. Hannity side, sans Mr. Kennedy’s attempts to get a word in:

Hannity : Nazism and fascism? That we’re using the tactics of fascists and Nazis? That’s what you’re saying about your President? You can’t disagree without being that obnoxious?

Hannity : You compare the tactics of the President with Nazis, not me.

Hannity : George Bush uses Nazi tactics? You said that in the book. You’re suggesting that.

Hannity : Will you-will you admit that you said in this book that he uses the tactics of Nazism?

He then called Mr. Kennedy an “extremist” without responding to Mr. Kennedy’s statements. Defending the technique, he said, “For him to be out there criticizing the President-‘I have mercury poisoning because of George Bush’-it’s silly.”

Mr. Hannity called himself a moderate, compassionate conservative. It was true that he slagged Senator John Kerry nightly-most recently inviting former Vietnam Swift boat veterans to promote their TV attack ad questioning his record in the war-but he didn’t think Mr. Kerry was evil.

“I don’t dislike him,” he said. “I even wrote in my first book that he’s a man who served his country in a war he didn’t believe in. I don’t dislike him. I don’t dislike liberals. A lot of people misunderstood the title of my last book: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism . ‘You’re putting those three things together!’ I’m saying, ‘No, I’m not.’ I just believe that conservatives have the right vision to beat back the forces of evil that we face in our time. Democrats have abandoned their traditions.”

Then, just in case you thought he’d abandoned his role as a guy whose expertise was in pissing off the opposition, he said, “If he were still alive, I believe that John F. Kennedy would be a conservative today.”

Then, the patented Hannity method: fake left, then take a hard, barrel-chested right. “We’ve got to get rid of the partisan bickering,” he insisted, sounding a lot like Barack Obama.

Then, screeeech : “This war on terror has now been politicized by the leaders of the Democratic Party, And I think that is dangerous …. It’s John Edwards who believes in the two Americas, not Sean Hannity. I believe in one America.”

Then, left: That same day, First Lady Laura Bush had said she thought the media was to blame for the divisive atmosphere in the country. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” said Mr. Hannity. “I think it’s a healthy thing to have passionate debate. Our founders had it at their convention in 1787. If it’s good for them, it’s pretty good for us in the battle against terrorism.”

Mr. Hannity grew up a Catholic in Long Island and now lives there with his wife and two kids. A college dropout, he was once a contractor, then started calling in to AM radio shows-Rush Limbaugh gave him his first national exposure-and eventually got the top-rated talk-radio spot in Atlanta. When he appeared on TalkBack Live on CNN in the mid-1990’s, he caught the attention of Roger Ailes, who put him on CNBC. Mr. Hannity then tapped his friend Newt Gingrich for an exclusive hour, and things took off.

He gets up at 7 a.m. to watch morning shows. At night, he watches the Biography Channel, A&E, the History Channel. He said he owns 10 blue jackets, 10 gray jackets, three different colored ties: yellow, red and blue. His other car is a Jeep Cherokee.

Now and then, Mr. Hannity encounters a formidable adversary. When, earlier this year, Mr. Hannity challenged former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta to produce evidence that he’d “said something that was so false,” Mr. Podesta generated 15 examples that he then posted on the Web on June 16 as “The Document Sean Hannity Doesn’t Want You to Read.”

Asked if he’d ever run across the document, Mr. Hannity said, “No.”

Presented with a copy, he immediately attacked No. 5, “The Recession,” which cited 20 instances of the host claiming that Mr. Bush inherited a recession from former President Bill Clinton.

“They just disagree with me about when the recession started,” he said. “The President, when he comes into office, doesn’t get his first budget passed until October. By any definition, I’m right and they’re wrong. By any definition. So I stand by that.”

He moved on to his statement, from Sept. 18, 2003, that “I never questioned anyone’s patriotism.”

Mr. Podesta had come up with Mr. Hannity asking a guest, “Is it you hate this President or that you hate America?”

“Stanley Cohen, who is the Hamas attorney,” said Mr. Hannity. “Do you know who he is? He’s the political wing of Hamas, a terrorist organization. ‘Is it that you hate the President or that you hate America?’ That’s a question. That’s not saying ‘You’re un-American,’ which is how I would interpret saying ‘You’re un-American.'”

Mr. Hannity sipped his Coke. “It depends on how you say ‘questioning one’s patriotism,'” he said. “When you ask me if I’m doing that, I’m saying ‘You’re un-American’ …. If I’m asking an inquisitive question, versus saying ‘You’re un-American’-I’m not saying you’re un-American, I’m not questioning your patriotism. I don’t know if any of these are legitimate quotes anyway. But I stand by that statement.”

Mr. Hannity then recalled Mr. Podesta getting “nailed directly in a lie” on his radio show. For weeks, Mr. Hannity insisted that former Vermont Governor Howard Dean had once suggested that Mr. Bush had prior knowledge about the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mr. Podesta said Dr. Dean never said it.

Mr. Hannity said Mr. Podesta was lying.

“What you’re looking at here is a total distortion of one’s point of view,” said Mr. Hannity. “If you want to print their propaganda, I guess you’re entitled to do it. He’s one of those extremists on the left. That’s silly left-wing propaganda.”

Judd Legum, Mr. Podesta’s deputy research assistant, who was responsible for the memo, told NYTV, “I know the show’s seen it.” He recalled that Mr. Hannity’s radio show later promoted the interview on its Web site as “The Interview John Podesta Doesn’t Want You to Hear.”

Asked if he could admit he was wrong in any instance, Mr. Hannity laughed a big, full-throated TV laugh.

“Yeah, I’m not perfect. I make mistakes every day and I pray for guidance that I do better. Yeah, sure, over the years I’ve made lots of mistakes.”

Mr. Hannity said he couldn’t conceive of waking up on Nov. 3 and finding that John Kerry was President of the United States. It was his worst nightmare, he said.

“I think the President is going to win,” he added. “That’s my honest assessment. I’m trying to be objective here.”

But aside from saving his beloved nation from left-wing extremists, Mr. Hannity knew that there would be another payoff for a Bush second term: He’d have plenty of more material coming in the form of enraged liberal guests.

“I think if the President wins, there’s going to be a lot of angry people,” he said.

Shht, shht . Strictly business.