NEW YORK (AP) – Sean Hannity will not abandon ship.
President Bush’s approval ratings have sunk into the 30s, but Fox News Channel’s tenacious conservative isn’t wavering in his support, even while parting ways with the president over immigration and the Dubai ports deal.
“Let me be straight with you – I like George Bush,” Hannity said. “I think he’s a man of principle, a man of faith. I think he’s got a backbone of steel and he’s a real, genuine, big-time leader … He’s a consequential figure for his time. We don’t see it right now.”
History will vindicate Bush as a strong leader the same way it did Harry Truman, another unpopular president of his time, Hannity said.
Even surf-by viewers of “Hannity & Colmes” will recognize those opinions. The popularity of the weeknight talk show and his syndicated talk-radio show has enabled the 44-year-old Long Island native to become a business unto himself – hawking books, recommending CDs and arranging dates for like-minded singles.
Hannity packed a Broadway theater full of fans one night last month for an evening that mixed putative standup comedy and exhortations to the faithful.
Also, few talk-show hosts are as adept at inspiring sputtering rage among unlike-minded people. Actor Alec Baldwin, for instance, called Hannity a “no-talent, former-construction-worker hack” during a recent radio confrontation.
“I think the guy’s political views are off-the-wall, but he is an undeniably brilliant television talent,” said Ellis Henican, a Newsday columnist and frequent on-air foil. “He exudes authenticity. You can disagree with him, as I do, about almost every thought he has but recognize that Sean is truly somebody who believes in something.”
Henican was part of a particularly electric “Hannity & Colmes” on March 29. In a rare moment where Hannity was double-teamed, Henican and Alan Colmes pummeled him about Hannity’s frequent criticism of those who attack Bush while “he’s leading troops into harm’s way.”
Bush’s sagging popularity and the dwindling public support for the Iraq war has definitely made things tougher for Hannity, Henican said.
Hannity and his peers are “in this double tug, being squeezed in different ways,” he said. “Do I stick with the guy I love or do I back the policies that fit into my world view? And I guess he’s done the only thing he could do, which is uncomfortably express his opposition in those areas in which Bush has disappointed him.”
Hannity has criticized the Dubai ports deal for being a threat to national security. During the debate on immigration, he takes a much tougher line than the president on illegal workers and in seeking more secure borders.
While this may upset the president’s supporters and some of Hannity’s fans, Henican believes Hannity gains wider credibility by exhibiting something other than unquestioned support for Bush.
“I say these things every day,” Hannity said. “Liberal critics don’t hear me say it.”
Hannity was plucked from talk radio nearly 10 years ago for the Fox show. He labored largely unnoticed in those early years, which was probably a good thing, said Bill Shine, Fox News Channel’s senior vice president of programming.
“In the beginning, he was awful. Really bad,” Shine said. Hannity would ask three-minute questions that would end with, “aren’t I right?” he said.
The young host sharpened his game and “Hannity & Colmes” exploded in popularity after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, regularly beating CNN’s “Larry King Live.”
“Ten years ago he was taking the Long Island Railroad home from work after the show and now he can’t do that anymore,” Shine said. “I know that because I used to ride with him.”
The former roofer’s populist appeal was evident in how he deftly turned Baldwin’s intended “construction worker” slur into a badge of honor. Hannity called into a radio show where Baldwin appeared last month to confront the actor on an anti-Bush statement. It turned into an ugly war of words. Hannity revisited it so often that Henican needled him, “I don’t think you’ve milked it enough.”
During a relatively slow news period, “Hannity & Colmes” averaged 1.5 million viewers for the first three months of this year. That’s down 10 percent from the same period in 2005, according to Nielsen Media Research.
He was wildly popular on Broadway, though. After Oliver North and Jackie Mason appeared as warm-up acts, Hannity stalked the stage. He offered a tentative Bill Clinton impersonation, made jokes about Ted Kennedy’s drinking and attracted boos at the mere mention of Hillary Clinton’s name. He called her “the ice princess.”
“I am going to start the stop-Hillary express!” he vowed.
Hannity, during a later interview in his Fox News Channel office, said that there’s nothing inconsistent about attacking Democrats himself, then attacking Democrats for attacking Bush.
“I don’t hate the Democrats,” he said. “I have fun with the Democrats. As a matter of fact, I use them for a lot of fun on the air. What they’re saying is serious – while we’re at war, and while the president is sending troops in harm’s way after the worst attack in history. There’s a big difference between that and joking about Bill Clinton’s sexcapades.”
Growing up on Long Island, Hannity never missed a speech by Ronald Reagan. He listened intently to radio talk-show hosts, including Larry King. He’s living his dream, he said.
He has donated to some GOP officeholders, like Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (since he’s a commentator and not a journalist, he doesn’t consider that a conflict). He professed to no political plans for himself.
And even if President Bush is having his problems, don’t think Hannity is vulnerable.
“I’m ready to fight,” he said. “This is what I do for a living. I’m not afraid to take a punch. Give me your best shot.”
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EDITOR’S NOTE – David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org
NEW YORK (AP) – Sean Hannity will not abandon ship.