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Hugh Hewitt's Morning Glory

A wild primary season turns up the volume for political radio host Hugh Hewitt

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More than once, Hugh Hewitt has stumped Donald Trump, who called him a “third-rate announcer.”

Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt sits behind a desk in his Orange County recording studio. Dressed in a blue shirt and red, striped tie, with his first guest ready on the phone, he slips the headphones over his silver hair, adjusts the mic and offers his trademark greeting: “Morning glory, evening grace, America.”

The words are instantly recognizable, as is his affable tone. On the line with him is Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College in Michigan, a regular, whom Hewitt questions about the presidential primary contests the day before in Arizona and Utah. As their conversation proceeds, Hewitt glances up at a monitor carrying CNN. A headline flashes: “Breaking News: Bombmaker Believed to be Dead.”  

It is the day after the Belgium terrorist bombings. That same day, the peripatetic Hewitt had also been in an airport. “I was in the Minneapolis airport, watching in horror, and thinking that I had just done what those people had done, which is approach the ticket counter. I thought about it all day, because you can’t keep pushing the perimeters out to where they fail to function. And so the only perimeter is intelligence gathering.

“Jihadists are smart; we don’t credit them for being adaptive, incredibly, technically competent,” continues Hewitt, who has long advocated a strong defense. “But all of our political actors are responsible for fighting the last war all the time. Every time you see a TSA agent, that’s 9/11, right? That’s not what they are going to do next. They are not going to do what they did yesterday, or what they did in Paris or Mumbai, or in San Bernardino.”

In September, when he appeared as a questioner in the second GOP debate, Hewitt’s fame spiked. While he’s long been known in conservative circles, suddenly he was mainstream. He has become the go-to GOP commentator – a class act with the intellectual chops to interrogate anyone and the grace to know when it’s pointless. More than once, he’s stumped Donald Trump, who called him a “third-rate announcer” on national TV. But Hewitt was unperturbed and continues to ask probing questions of all the candidates. Of Trump, Hewitt says: “He is a tractor beam for the disappointed. I think he connects with older, white males who feel like the country they expected to grow old in is not the country they are growing old in.”

Hewitt is an almost constant presence on the political talk shows. Profiles on him have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, Politico, The Huffington Post, The New York Times magazine, USA Today and elsewhere. Even MTV was moved to weigh in about his “gleaming silver hair”: “When Richard Gere goes to his hairdresser, does he pull out the first Google Images result for Hugh Hewitt and say, ‘I’ll have what he’s having?’ ”    

That’s particularly ironic when Hewitt was once your constitutional law professor, as he was mine. Originally from Ohio, Hewitt is a graduate of Harvard and the University of Michigan Law School, and worked in the Reagan administration. He has taught at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law for 20 years. He moved to San Clemente in 1978 to work for Nixon for two years and moved back to Orange County in 1989 as executive director of the Nixon library. Not long after that, he had his first LA radio show, and in 1992 he joined KCET’s “Life & Times,” with which he won three Emmys.

Throughout his time as a public figure, Hewitt has carefully guarded his family’s privacy. He makes regular references to “the fetching Mrs. Hewitt” – aka, the FMH – but that’s about as far as it goes. He also takes pains to ensure that the exact locations of his recording studios are not disclosed, including making that a condition of this article. “One of my reasons for my conditions with interviews is to never tell anyone where I am is because we are a soft target,” he explains.

“The Hugh Hewitt Show,” based in Orange County, began in 2000. In April, the Salem Radio Network, which has hosted the show from the beginning, promoted it from the evening drive time slot (6-9 p.m.) on the West Coast to the highly coveted morning drive time (6-9 a.m.) in the East. That meant that Hewitt needed to add a base of operations on the East Coast, so he now has a second home  in Virginia. Mondays through Fridays, he broadcasts from whichever coast he happens to be on, and the show is heard on 200-plus stations nationwide. In Southern California, Hewitt can be heard live from 3 to 6 a.m. on KRLA-AM 870, but the convenient option is to download the app and listen on demand.

The move to Eastern drive time makes sense for a broadcaster who’s done nearly 200 interviews with the Republican presidential candidates. That number attests to how essential candidates regard airtime with Hewitt. His team makes full transcripts available online, and other journalists often pick up the news that Hewitt breaks. Shifting to Eastern a.m. means Hewitt can break more news and drive the news cycle, particularly in an election year.
“The Hugh Hewitt Show” began in its new time slot on April 4 with a typically bold-name lineup, starting with former Secretary of Education William Bennett, who had hosted the time slot when Hewitt now airs for a dozen years. After Bennett, and before GOP National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, House Speaker Paul Ryan called in from Israel.

HH: Speaker Ryan, thanks for joining us while you’re on your very important, symbolically and practically, visit to Israel. Why’d you pick Israel as the first place to travel as speaker?  

PR: Because I think we need to show how important our ties and our alliance with Israel is. In this dangerous, chaotic part of the world, with terrorism all over the world, Israel is one of our most important allies. I just left a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I’m on my way out to an Iron Dome site to review their missile defenses. … They’ve had, since 2005, just from Gaza, about 10,000, missiles and rockets sent into Israel. … I’m here to talk with our allies, and to see how we can better cooperate to win this war against radical Islamic terrorism.

• • •

Hewitt enters the Chapman law school lecture hall on the first day of the semester, greets the students with enthusiasm and lays out the rules of engagement. By show of hands, he asks them why they are there. Is it because they’re expecting a center-right take on constitutional law? Or because they think he’ll go easier than other professors? A mentor as well as a teacher, he quickly disabuses them of those notions, while offering practical advice to boot (“Always introduce yourself: stick out your hand and say your name.”) Oh yes, and they’re also going to have to memorize hundreds of cases. Hewitt acknowledges to the class that there will be individuals among them who have been personally affected by certain hot-button issues, and that he will tread accordingly. As if to telegraph his commitment to open, reasoned debate, the casebook for the course is written by noted left-wing constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of UC Irvine’s School of Law.
That he would choose Chemerinsky’s casebook is emblematic. A charismatic enigma whom the National Journal once dubbed a “gentleman’s conservative,” Hewitt is a generous, energetic, driven mix of classical values and 21st-century methods. His latest book, “The Queen: The Epic Ambition of Hillary and the Coming of a Second ‘Clinton Era’ ” is modeled slyly after Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” At a young 60, he’s a lifelong conservative who holds forth to his 103,000-plus Twitter followers like a caffeinated millennial. He writes a Washington Examiner column that also appears in The Orange County Register and other publications around the country. Unlike some on the far right, he is never shrill. As Chemerinsky says of Hewitt, “He is fair and reasonable.” While highly critical of the current administration, Hewitt doesn’t hesitate to praise when he thinks it’s due, tweeting about President Obama in February: “POTUS speech at mosque is superb. Yes, you read that right. Superb.” Similarly, he routinely insists people read “The Looming Tower,” a 2006 book about the terrorist onslaught, written by liberal journalist Lawrence Wright.

Hewitt has friends on both sides of the aisle. “He respects everyone, including liberals (which is appropriate) and even leftists (which goes under the heading of ‘flaws’),” says his Salem Media colleague Dennis Prager. “It is impossible not to like Hugh. That, his non-confrontational manner, and his fluency in political matters have contributed to his widespread acceptance by the mainstream media.”

Chemerinsky and fellow constitutional law scholar John Eastman, a conservative, have appeared on the show since the beginning, in a segment called “The Smart Guys.” “I think people can disagree in a reasoned manner without being disagreeable,” Chemerinsky says. “I have the highest regard for Hugh and am honored to be a part of his program. Hugh is incredibly smart and articulate. He has an astounding breadth of knowledge. Hugh is a truly decent person. We disagree far more than we agree, but I always feel I am treated fairly by him.”

That may explain why mainstream media anointed Hewitt. “He really does try and foster an intellectual exchange across the ideological spectrum,” says Eastman, who is the Henry Salvatori Professor of Law & Community Service, and former dean, at Chapman’s Fowler Law. “This is the hallmark of our segment on the show. There are too many in the media who haven’t done the homework or don’t have the spine to push the issue. Hugh does the homework and he doesn’t back down.”

Indeed, it seems anyone who knows Hewitt lauds both his professional and personal qualities. “Hugh is a humble man,” Prager says. “Fame and success do not go to his head. He is also always in a good mood. This is something that anyone who has read or heard me on the subject of happiness knows I greatly value. He is, as well, a first-class intellectual, but he does not wear his extensive reading on his sleeve. That, too, is a function of his humility.

Finally, he is funny – in a funny sort of way.”

As for his new life, Hewitt takes his cue from politicians. “I’ve figured out the life of a congressman,” he says. “Former U.S. Rep. John Campbell has been my guest forever, and I’ve kind of studied him. It might be a Friday-Monday trip to D.C., or broadcasting here on Friday, get on a plane and go to D.C., do the Sunday shows, broadcast Monday from D.C. Fly back and teach Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and then go back. It’s what congressmen do. When I broadcast from California, I’ll be on from 3 to 6 in the morning, so that’ll be a change of life.”


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