During his dozen years as the anchor of Fox News' flagship nightly political newscast, "Special Report," Brit Hume has always managed to convey a certain seriousness and gravitas -- even as viewers of a liberal bent scoffed at his cable network's claim to be "fair and balanced."
But during a recent wide-ranging telephone interview to discuss his upcoming retirement, the 32-year television veteran seemed positively giddy when asked how he felt while anchoring his last election-night broadcast on Fox -- during which a Democrat won the White House. In one newspaper report he was described as looking like "the world's most depressed Bassett hound."
"I don't think any reasonable person who watched that would have come to that conclusion," Hume sputtered, seemingly caught between amusement and outrage. "We had a rollicking broadcast. We had more fun that night -- we went in with the attitude that we were going to have a great time and we did."
Now Hume, 65, is ready to let someone else have all the fun, or at least most of it. He's stepping down as anchor of "Special Report," although he'll still be on the air for about 100 days a year, serving as a senior political analyst, anchor for special events, panelist on "Fox News Sunday" and occasional substitute for its host, Chris Wallace.
Hume, whose "Special Report" is the highest-rated political program on cable television, is, quite frankly, exhausted. "If you're doing a one-hour program on a cable channel and trying to keep the quality up, you work very hard, the days are long and it's an intense competitive business, and it wears you down."
Indeed, the present -- or even the recent past -- doesn't seem to enthuse Hume as much as questions about how he got started in journalism. Forget the work with legendary muckraker Jack Anderson or the 23 years at ABC, first on Capitol Hill and, later, as chief White House correspondent. Ask about his early days as a print reporter and he's off and running.
"It was like a newspaper out of the movies," he said of the Hartford Times, where he was hired in 1965 as a cub reporter for $95 a week. "There was always this tremendous din, with noisy typewriters with their keyboard covers off and the pneumatic tubes sending copy up to the composing room above us and a horseshoe copy desk and an editor with a stogie in his mouth named Bill Shea -- Bill Shea! If he wasn't named that you would have had to change it to Bill Shea!"
When Hume broke his first big story about plans for a suburban landfill, "Shea was on the phone with some bigwig who was complaining about it and he saw me standing there with a copy of the story in my hand and he sticks his thumb up, for 'Up! Get it up to the composing room! What are you waiting for?' And I thought, 'Wow! We're going to go with this! This is great!' "
There would be many bigger stories Hume would go on to cover in 43 years as a journalist, most notably in television, although "My first standup for ABC News was so bad they couldn't use it. I had my head tilted too far to the right," he laughed.
At ABC, Hume recalled, he was always a bit frustrated, as a political conservative amid reporters who, he felt, were more liberal than he was. But, he adds, "I'm a reporter first and a conservative second. And the reason why that's notable -- that I'm a conservative -- is that there are so few of us," he said, recalling one trade magazine's profile of him headlined, "Mr. Right at the White House."
"I thought that was riotously funny, that they thought it was notable that someone conservative was covering the White House," he said.
"I believe that fair political coverage begins with the recognition to yourself, and others, if need be, of what your own political biases and leanings are, because a professional journalist -- aware of that and conscientious about his or her obligations -- can, without great difficulty, set that aside when covering the news. But if you don't believe [your biases] could possibly affect your coverage, that's when you're on a slippery slope," he said.
What of complaints by non-Fox-aficionados that the network focused for far too long on President-elect Barack Obama's past associations with 1960s radical Bill Ayers, for example?
"We're on 24 hours a day, there's a lot of stuff that goes on that I miss and a lot of stuff that I don't have any role in," he said, noting that on his own program, "We didn't do all that much with Bill Ayers. We did a little bit, it was raised and discussed as an issue, and it's a perfectly relevant issue."
Past associations, especially of a relatively unknown figure such as Obama, "who has a limited record in national politics," are legitimate, he said, adding that Dan Rather, while at CBS, chased President Bush's military record long after he'd been elected president and had accumulated "a pretty extensive and very controversial record as commander in chief. So the relevance of military service at that point seemed to me much diminished and it was a little hard for me to understand why they kept going after it like Captain Ahab after Moby-Dick."
Asked how Fox will fare in an Obama administration, he begs off.
"We don't really know," he said, noting that the channel's ratings, after skyrocketing during the Clinton years, flattened during the recent Bush Administration. But once the Democrats took back control of the House and Senate in 2006, "our ratings picked up like mad, and we sense that may happen again, but a lot depends," he added, "on which Obama we get."
Now, even as the country -- and Washington, D.C -- have become more polarized, Hume says he's weary not just of the daily grind but of the unrelenting partisanship gripping the nation's capital, day in and day out.
"I love this city. I was born here. I grew up here, but the atmosphere is so toxic now. I find it unpleasant and the city's really become Balkanized politically, in a way that it didn't used to be, and I don't much care for it anymore," he said quietly.
"I'm in reasonably good health and there are a lot of things I want to have the freedom to do. It's time to slow down."
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.