I was sad to hear yesterday that Fox News cable and syndicated radio host Alan Colmes had died from lymphoma.
What I remember most about my first of many appearances as a panel guest on Alan’s radio show back in the late 1990s was how nervous I was when I walked into the studio. Back then I was on a local station in New York’s Hudson Valley, but this would be my first time before a national audience, and a Fox News audience at that. How did a passionate liberal talk to staunch conservatives anyway? I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that Alan Colmes was doing it every night on both TV and radio and obviously relishing the opportunity.
With his natural warmth, unassuming manner and humor, Alan immediately put me at ease and treated me like I belonged in the room with him, a top-rated prime-time host. And so, I believed that I did.
Over the next two decades Alan had me back periodically as part of his “Friday Night Free-For-All,” two hours of orchestrated chaos featuring freewheeling political talk and humor. The show would always conclude with his trademark “Radio Graffiti,” during which callers were limited to one sentence (just one, no matter how short or long) before being cut off, creating an oddball and compelling stream of collective radio consciousness.
My favorite memory of doing Alan’s show was following the Supreme Court decision that handed the presidency to George Bush. I had written a parody of the standard “More” (“more than the greatest love the world has known…”) called “Gore,” which I sang live to a recorded track:
Gore was the guy the networks said had won
Gore thought the campaign was all through and done;
Gore found the vote was just too close to call
Gore found that Bush had beat him after all;
Oh, Gore said it was not fair
With chads, hanging everywhere;
Though some Jews were angry at him
They’d never vote for Pat Buchannan…
Alan loved it, and I loved that he did.
While I never got to know him outside the studio, over the years Alan spoke to me with surprising candor about his career and his experience at Fox News. Widely perceived as Sean Hannity’s whipping boy, he knew that conservatives thought he was wrong and liberals thought he was weak. So, what kept him at Hannity’s side?
Alan was genuinely drawn to the challenge of speaking to an audience that was predisposed to disagreeing with him. “Why preach to the choir?” he said. Far from weak, it took a lot of chutzpah to be the lone liberal in the “lion’s den” of Fox News, especially alongside a right-wing attack dog like Hannity for 12 years. In a media environment in which flame-throwing ideologues are anointed superstars, Alan’s insistence on civility and respectful treatment of his guests, especially those he vehemently disagreed with, inspired derision from all sides. He was in a no-win situation.
I think that explains why Alan eventually left “Hannity & Colmes.” Even if it meant playing to a much smaller audience, which it did, he needed a clean break from the team in which he was seen as the inferior player. Alan once described Hannity to me as “a messianic conservative,” offering this spot-on assessment without a trace of bitterness, however the subtext was clear: Alan had had enough.
During his final week on the air with Hannity, Alan showed up on the Colbert Report, poking fun of himself by playing the role of Colbert’s spineless and compliant second banana. A former stand-up comic, Alan instinctively understood that the best shot he had at undermining the stereotype of him was to parody it.
A few times Alan mentioned to me that while he loved radio, he would have liked to have his own cable show. By then he was as a regular on the O’Reilly Factor and there was an infamous segment in which Bill O’Reilly goes completely ballistic on Alan because he disagrees with his assessment on how President Obama was cutting the costs of federal programs.
As Alan’s sister-in-law and Fox News pundit, Monica Crowley, sits by in stunned silence, O’Reilly points his finger at Alan, pounds his fist, and shouts, “You’re a liar! You’re a liar!” It’s a vicious verbal assault and one could have hardly blamed Alan for launching an equally unhinged counterattack. But he didn’t -- and no, that’s not weakness, it’s grace under fire.
Somehow, Alan managed to defend himself without insulting O’Reilly, telling him, “Why do you want to yell? I’m not lying, Bill. Don’t call me a liar. Don’t just sit there and call me a liar. I’m not lying. You don’t like the President. You don’t like what he’s doing. We could have a disagreement without you calling me a calling me a liar. That’s not necessary. There’s a difference between having a disagreement and calling me a liar. That’s a personal attack.”
Exactly. O’Reilly was engaging in the very kind of ugly personal attack that he made a career of lamenting and claiming to be above, the kind of ugly attack that Alan never engaged in. In his succinct rebuttal to the most pompous man in American news, Alan managed to expose O’Reilly as a hypocrite and sum up his own professional philosophy.
Alan preferred illuminating conversation to histrionic shouting matches. He was a class act in a screaming world, one of the truly good guys in the business.
I’ll miss him.