Among Democrats, there is probably no more reviled Fox News host than Sean Hannity. Bill O’Reilly seems reasonable by comparison. The star of a nationally syndicated radio show and the popular TV show, Hannity, 51, can be genial, but he can also be blustery, blunt and bursting with blasts at any Democrat and sometimes even at GOPers who lean toward the Rockefeller republican model. His kinds of Republicans, to name a couple, are Texans Ted Cruz in the Senate and Louie Gohmert in the House.
So why does Booth business school economics prof Austan Goolsbee, 44, appear so often on Hannity’s radio and television show? Why do the two engage in a running gag about dining out together?
Hannity awards those he admires most by exclaiming at segment’s end, “You’re a great American.” He has never said that to Goolsbee, who holds BA and MA degrees from Yale (not a favorite of Hannity’s), a PhD from MIT, and who was, during the Barack Obama’s first term, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, a position that carries cabinet-rank status.
If Hannity has anything good to say about Obama, I’ve never heard it.
I called Goolsbee, who started advising Obama in 2003 before his run for the U.S. Senate, at his office on Tuesday—he had done Hannity’s radio show the day before—to ask him what gives.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Excuse the phrase, but how did you hook up with Sean Hannity?
I can’t remember exactly, but the White House is not keen on people going on Fox News. It’s my view that while people in the administration feel that Fox News doesn’t give them a fair shake, the fact of the matter is there are a lot of people who watch Fox News. If Democrats don’t go on Fox News, it doesn’t mean that people stop watching.
They say so many outrageous things. Somebody has to respond and offer a more reasonable version to their conspiracy theories and really extreme views…. I’m from Chicago [Born in Waco, Texas; reared in Whittier, California]. I don’t mind playing smashmouth football; I’m not afraid to take a punch. Maybe it’s because I teach at Chicago where there are very smart conservatives and libertarians.
Do your U of C colleagues watch you on Hannity?
Research professors don’t watch a whole lot of TV.
How about your students? Do any of them come to class and say, “Hey, saw you on Hannity last night”?
Somewhat rarely. If I go on The Daily Show, my colleagues see that and students one hundred percent see that. With Fox News in general, and Hannity in particular, it’s not an academic crowd. In some sense that’s why I go on. It’s two ships passing in night … It’s the biggest problem in our society. Got to break down that barrier.
Do you get responses from others who aren’t academics or grad students?
I get massive invective, massive abuse, via email, phone messages, and Twitter. From people way, way to the right of center, scary abusive kind of stuff. Really freaks out my assistant and my wife. Hate-filled.*
Sometimes I will send back a note. “I’m sorry to hear the hostility, but I do thank you for taking the time to write your opinion.” Three times out of four, they’ll send back an apology. Even some of most invective-laden correspondence, if I reply, “sounds like your point was this,” the majority of people will write, “Sorry for being so rude.” I find it interesting and vaguely hopeful.
Do these people sign their names?
Yes, for example, one from someone named J. Chandler, who emails, “Obama needs useful idiots like you.” And while my colleagues don’t watch, often I’ll be at the airport and someone will recognize me. At one point, I was visiting the White House and a Secret Service agent, said, “Hey, you’re the guy from Sean Hannity.”
Does your wife watch you on Hannity?
No, she doesn’t watch. I’m not emotionally sensitive. Punching me, I’m fine. It upsets my wife to find people saying negative things.
You mentioned that your parents have retired to Abilene, Texas and that they’re Obama supporters. Do they watch you on Hannity?
In Abilene, families and neighbors trump politics. Abilene is the second reddest city after Provo, Utah, and the Abilene people ask, “Why aren’t we first?” When I was named to the White House job, the local paper ran the news on the front page. In my parents’ retirement community, everyone will say, “We don’t like the President but your son is doing a great job.” My mother [who grew up in Abilene] says that when she writes her autobiography the title will be, “I can’t help it that I look like a Republican.”
So are you and Sean really friends?
We get along. We have a fun time in the scrum together … We don’t agree on the President or the administration or most policy issues. I’m respectful of his views and he likes someone from the other side who’s willing to mix it up.
What’s up with the back and forth on dinner invites?
I’ll say to him, “Come here to Chicago, I’ll take you to a Bears game.” Before the 2012 election, he was convinced that the polls were skewed and the President would lose. I bet him dinner. I tried to get him to shave his head, but he refused … He suggested, “Let’s bet a fine steak dinner.” So I bet. So then the President wins. “Where’s my steak dinner?” He sends me a Ruth’s Chris gift card. I responded, “You’re throwing money at a problem. You owe me dinner.” “I already sent you dinner.”
Then at Valentine's Day—this was on the radio—he started asking about my wife. “How does she put up with you?” Gets my address, sends my wife a huge bouquet of flowers. “You’re a saint for putting up with him.” So I have to go out and buy a bigger bouquet.
To send to Hannity’s wife?
No, to send to my own wife. Sean has way more money than I do.
Speaking of money. Do you get paid for doing Hannity? Are you a “Fox contributor?”
No and no. I don’t have a contract. That’s what’s funny. His rabid supporters complain, “This guy will say anything for money.” There’s no travel involved. I do almost all the TV from the basement of the Harper Center here on campus where we have a recording studio. If I happen to be in New York, I’ll go to the studio.
Hannity’s shows have certain predictability. Do you know the issues you’ll be talking about before you go on?
His producer will send me some article that Sean is reading, say an article on how the President has taken a lot of vacations.
You were a college debater. How do you rate Hannity’s debating skills?
The set-up is inherently to the guest’s disadvantage. The host controls the questions, so the guest is starting out from behind the eight ball … I think Sean’s biggest strength is the ability to tap into things with visceral appeal. Lots of negatives: “Can you believe they’re doing this?” “Justify this action, this outrage of the week.” He’s host so he has to cover lots of issues, and he’s not fully prepped on some. If I can get it into policy, he’s going to be challenged. I can respond with more facts … But he’s definitely a worthy opponent.
Does he know much about economics?
I would say his knowledge of economics is ideological. From my perspective, I would not say, lots of economic insight I agree with. His viewers think I’m a babbling idiot. They’ll say, “Sean Hannity destroyed him tonight! Sean had all the facts."
Take a look for yourself. Here’s links to some recent Goolsbee appearances on Hannity:
*Following an appearance on Hannity on Wednesday, Goolsbee shared with me the following signed (by Richard F. Rhodes) email:
“And people wonder why this country is falling apart. They let a little stupid brainless little arrogant fucking liar like you into a school to teach something you know nothing about. If I met you, you obnoxious little shit I would put you in a hospital. Stay off the television. Stay in your little criminal city. I hope to hell you get run over by a truck.”