Why Hugh Hewitt is suddenly the Republican establishment’s go-to pundit.
By Shane Goldmacher
March 14, 2015
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.
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.”
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