It might be a fool’s errand, but Alan Colmes has spent the last decade trying to reclaim the curse word “liberal” and transform it from epithet to honorific.
“I never run away from it,” says Colmes, whose latest book, Thank the Liberals for Saving America (and Why You Should), is the second literary effort in his quixotic quest. The first was his 2003 book, Red, White & Liberal: How Left is Right and Right is Wrong. “People use the word ‘progressive,’ as if to dodge the L-word. I think that’s somewhat disingenuous to say, ‘Well, don’t call me a liberal; I’m a progressive.’ ”
Colmes, still best known as the formerly put-upon sidekick of right-wing pinup Sean Hannity, isn’t quite sure when “liberal” became a dirty word in the American political lexicon. It might have pre-dated George H.W. Bush’s 1988 skewering of Michael Dukakis as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” and Dukakis’s desperate attempts to make the election about competence, not ideology.
Oddly, it might have been Bob Dole—in today’s Tea Party context as moderate a Republican as they come—who started demonizing liberals as Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976 and as the Republican presidential nominee 20 years later, when even Bill Clinton, under the tutelage of Dick Morris (Colmes’s Fox News colleague), ran screaming from the word.
“Dole kept going ‘liberal, liberal, liberal,’ ” Colmes says. “I think there was a turning point in ’96.” (Clinton, by the way, is Colmes’s blurber in chief; Colmes was a staunch defender during that impeachment unpleasantness, and the ex-president’s praise is prominent on the cover.)
The 62-year-old Colmes, a reed-thin man who wears a suit in his own office, holds forth behind his decidedly un-designer metal desk at Fox News—the liberal equivalent of the Evil Empire. He has toiled there, behind enemy lines, for the past 16 years, first on Hannity & Colmes, which he left nearly four years ago under vague circumstances (Colmes says it was his choice), and more recently as the host of a late-night talk-radio show distributed by Fox to more than 100 stations nationwide.
Which begs the question: What’s a nice guy like Colmes doing in a place like that?
“Who’s says I’m nice?” he parries. “Look, I have a great platform here. I’m not just preaching to the choir. It gives me a chance to exercise both my debate muscles and my performance muscles—to get on television or radio every single day. Most of the listeners on my radio show are not liberal either. To be successful in talk radio you have to have a conservative audience as well. Not enough liberals listen to it. So I’m used to mixing it up, which I enjoy doing.”
In the acknowledgements section of his book, Colmes effusively thanks Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, the reigning archvillain of the liberal cosmology.
“He employs me. He’s always been good to me, and we’ve had a friendship and professional relationship now for 16 years. When I gave him a copy of the book, I said, ‘You probably won’t agree with everything in it, but without you I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to write it.’”
Yet working for Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. is Fox News’ parent company, is occasionally Colmes’s cross to bear. Al Franken, before he was a senator from Minnesota, would continually write and speak about Colmes as though he were a Vichy collaborator. Even Triumph the Insult Comic Dog famously attacked Colmes during the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston when he was briefly locked out of the Fleet Center. “He’s Hannity’s bitch. Let him in,” the cigar-chomping sock-puppet shouted at the security people. And when they finally relented and allowed Colmes to enter: “Thank God they just let the doormat back through door. Get in there and get your butt kicked by Sean Hannity!"
“Liberals go after me because they don’t like the fact that I work for what they perceive as a conservative group of people,” Colmes explains. “Liberals think everybody who works here is some kind of right-winger. It’s not true.”
Colmes makes no apologies for his friends on the right. His sister-in-law, after all, is blonde conservative talking head Monica Crowley, with whom he appears in weekly debates on The O’Reilly Factor. “I think most people have that crazy uncle they sit at Thanksgiving dinner with,” Colmes says, apparently referring to himself, “someone they disagree with politically but love them anyway.”
He even likes Ann Coulter. “I think she’s a great performance artist. She is clearly conservative, but I think she revs it up and says things in a very pointed, entertaining way that other people are not clever enough to say … Liberals hate when I say she and I are friends.”
And to his liberal friends who keep beating on him, Colmes says: “Thank you for the job advice. If you have some better options for me, let me know.”
But enough of Colmes’s liberal-bashing! His book applies the oft-derided term to such unlikely presidents as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon (the Roger Aileses of their day). “Almost everything I think we’ve accomplished for the good of the country has been because of liberals against conservative opposition,” Colmes says. “The other thing is, I think we’re all much more liberal than we admit, when life happens. One example is when Dick Cheney has a gay daughter. He was more progressive on gay rights than Barack Obama was.”
Is President Obama, who sometimes models centrist clothing, even comfortable with the tag?
“I can’t speak for him. I’d love him to answer that,” says Colmes.
What about Mitt Romney, a “Massachusetts moderate” when he was governor of the Bay State not all that long ago?
“He himself said, when he ran for governor, ‘I consider myself a progressive.’ I played that on my radio show. But I don’t think of him as a liberal. Just as many conservatives don’t think of him as a conservative, but they hate Obama more than they dislike Romney.”
JFK, on the other hand, warmed to the label, Colmes says. “‘Liberal’ is a great word—from the root, ‘liberty,’ which means free. John F. Kennedy was asked about being a liberal, and he said, ‘If being a liberal means caring about the poor, caring about the future’—he went through a litany of things—‘then feel free to call me a liberal.’”
Maybe JFK heard the question as ‘libertine’?
“They’re not that different,” Colmes says. “Conservatives act like they own words like ‘patriotism’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty.’ And those are, in fact, very liberal concepts.”
In the meantime, despite everything, Colmes has faith that Obama will win a second term, and perhaps validate some of his claims about liberals while prompting a painful period of GOP soul-searching.
“When Romney loses—and I still think he will—there’s going to be a big fight in the Republican Party with the far right saying, “See, we needed a real conservative,’ and the moderates saying, ‘You guys have ruined everything. You’ve made the party a crazy party, and we need to get back on track.’”
And then maybe "liberal" won’t be such a dirty word after all.