MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Somewhere, deep inside Bret Baier’s brain, a clock was ticking.
“All right, guys,” Baier, 41, loudly alerted nearly a dozen cross-talking people inside a stuffy conference room late Monday afternoon. “I have this show, by the way, ‘Special Report,’ that airs in one hour.”
After which the clock would keep on ticking. Two hours after “Special Report” signed off, the Fox News host was set to moderate his fifth GOP presidential debate in eight months, a grueling stint that had forced him to ride herd over as many as nine candidates on stage and cut through plenty of “pious baloney” to demand substantive answers to questions.
Adding to the pressure here, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman that morning had surprised nearly everyone by dropping out of the race; Baier and his fellow panelists had been scrambling ever since to reconfigure their debate questions.
“We don’t know what to expect here tonight,” Baier told Fox viewers during a live stand-up before the debate. “But ... there’s one less podium on stage, they’ve adjusted the lights and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”
The smile was real, not just real for TV.
This still boyish-looking kid from Dunwoody isn’t good at handling the unexpected. He’s hands-down the best.
“Bret Baier, along with Bill O’Reilly, now is the face of Fox News,” said Jeffrey McCall, who wrote the book “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences” on news organizations, including Fox, which marks 10 years atop the cable news ratings this month. “And given that O’Reilly does commentary, that puts Bret in the position of being the face of Fox News journalism.”
Years of toil in TV
Baier’s rapid ascent at Fox came after years of toil in TV that began, of all places, at Marist School, just a few miles from where he grew up. Assigned to shadow someone on the job, Baier attached himself to then-WSB-TV sportscaster Ernie Johnson Jr. and wound up in a permanent relationship with TV news.
Today, “Special Report with Bret Baier” is must-see TV for political junkies. The 6 p.m. show drew just under 2 million viewers on weeknights in 2011 — good enough for the No. 3 ranking among all cable news programs.
Before becoming “the center of our universe when it comes to political news,” says senior vice president for news Michael Clemente, there had been a less glamorous stint in the late 1990s running the then-upstart network’s Atlanta bureau out of his Buckhead apartment.
A decade later, Baier had made it to the pinnacle as a reporter, covering the White House for Fox. That’s when his personal life nearly cratered. Baier’s wife, Amy, gave birth to their first child, Paul, on June 29, 2007. Hours later, doctors told them he had five congenital heart defects and would very likely die unless he had surgery.
Two open heart surgeries and five angioplasties later, Paul Baier is a lively spitfire who just might give his dad a run for his job someday: Before a Fox debate held in August in Ames, Iowa, he memorably offered suggested questions for the candidates (mostly having to do with sharks and robots) in a clip posted on his dad’s show page online.
“Dad” says it’s almost impossible to overstate how much the experience with Paul has refocused his life.
“I’ve found a larger purpose,” Baier said during a recent interview, explaining why he and Amy now devote much time and money to improving heart care for all children. “This puts things in perspective. Not only the importance of family, of hugging your kids when you come home and leaving your work at the door when you can.
“But also perspective on the battles up on Capitol Hill about silly things. You think, ‘There’s a bigger picture.’”
Pointed, yet respectful
Such sentiments might seem unfathomable to news junkies, particularly in a presidential election year. Baier put his stamp on the 2012 GOP race in late November when his dogged pursuit of an interview with Mitt Romney resulted in a lengthy sit-down on the campaign trail.
Baier was widely praised by political and media observers for his pointed, yet respectful questioning about Romney’s changes in position on a number of social issues. Romney became visibly flustered, even angry; at one point he told Baier, in a scolding voice, “This is an unusual interview.” Afterward, as the two men filmed some so-called “walk and talk” footage, Romney complained to Baier that the interview had been “overly aggressive.”
“That was a very important interview,” said media expert McCall. “The Romney people figured out he needed to get better in these situations, and now.”
To Tim Baier, that’s just who his older brother is. Even as a teenaged golfer at Dunwoody Country Club, he says, Bret had an enviable ability to remain calm and creatively work his way through challenges.
Invariably, Bret came out ahead on the scorecard.
“He’s a scrambler,” said Tim Baier, 33, a sports anchor for News 14 Carolina in Charlotte. “If he gets in trouble on the course, he’s able to find his way out of it and get up and down for par or better. I suspect that’s a metaphor.”
Move to the Deep South
Bret Baier was 10 when the family moved to Dunwoody from New Jersey and he found himself, uh, scrambling to acclimate to the Deep South. One of his earliest memories of being here is not knowing what chicken “wangs” were until the butcher with the heavy drawl finally gave up and began flapping his arms to demonstrate.
Yet now, Baier says, “I call myself a Southerner. When I’m down there for a couple of weeks, the ‘y’all’ starts coming out.”
At Marist, he was sports editor of the school newspaper, and played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
You thought Mr. Future Very Serious White House Correspondent would hide out in the chorus?
“I knew those two things made me happy — writing and being in front of people,” said Baier, who has the build and speed of a football halfback, the position he played (“terribly”) for one year as a youngster. “The combination of the two led me to TV.”
At WSB, the sports beat was fun, he says, “but I remember looking over at Monica Kaufman and the news people and saying, ‘Maybe that’s where I want to be.’”
At DePauw University in Indiana, he double majored in English and political science and was the first anchor of its weekly news program. “It went out on local cable access, which meant it was seen by two people,” he said with a laugh. “But ... it led me to my first job.” That was at WJWJ-TV in Beaufort, S.C., followed by stints in Rockford, Ill., and Raleigh, N.C., to “cut my teeth on political reporting” in the state capital.
If he knew back then he wasn’t on the fairway — yet — it didn’t seem to bother him.
“I can remember thinking, ‘God, why is he living up there?’” Tim Baier recalled about visiting Bret in Rockford, Ill. “But after talking to him, I could see he was loving every minute of it.”
In 1998, Fox News hired him as a reporter in its Atlanta bureau. Barely two years old, Fox hadn’t yet begun to dominate the cable ratings and drive the political conversation. Whereas the CNN Center loomed large on the Atlanta skyline, Fox’s “bureau” here initially was located in Baier’s apartment in a building behind the now-defunct Three Dollar Café. At first, it was just him, a fax machine and a giant, early model cellphone covering the entire Southeast.
“I always felt I was on the cutting edge of something new and scrappy,” said Baier, who spent 40 days in Florida covering the 2000 presidential voting recount controversy with one other Fox reporter. “It was two of us in the back of a Ryder truck in Tallahassee with stale bagels and Cokes trying to figure out what was going on. That’s when Fox News took over [the ratings crown from CNN] and never looked back.”
Not long after the first plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Baier and a producer were driving to New York. By the time the third plane hit, they’d been rerouted to the Pentagon. Baier did live shots for Fox affiliates around the country and just kept on reporting. A few weeks later, Fox News named him its full-time Pentagon reporter. He never made it back to Atlanta.
“A Ryder truck came in and a team of people packed up all my stuff and took it away,” Baier recalled. “I was in Saudi Arabia with then Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld. ... I called on a satellite phone to someone I knew in D.C. and got help finding an apartment there. When I finally got to that apartment, they’d even packed the dirty dishes.”
Now that’s a scrambler.
For 18 months before being named the replacement for retiring “Special Report” host Brit Hume, Baier filled in for Hume on Friday nights. He also filled a regular anchoring slot on Saturdays and Sundays, meaning that for a year and a half, he essentially worked seven days a week.
“Bret has an insane work ethic,” said Amy Hills Baier, who was living in Chicago and hadn’t ever seen her future husband on TV when a mutual friend set them up on a blind date at a Rolling Stones concert. “It’s like he has these blinders on, with this amazing focus.”
‘We feel really blessed’
Now that focus is on helping Paul and other children like him. The couple serve on the foundation board at Children’s National Medical Center, where Paul has had his surgeries, and Amy is co-chairing the spring fundraising gala. Bret donates all proceeds from his paid speeches to Children’s, where a $1 million gift from the couple and Amy’s parents has already established the Paul Francis Baier Comprehensive Media Room.
“We feel really blessed,” said Amy Hills Baier, who gave birth 18 months ago to a second, healthy son, Daniel. “Paul can live a normal life, if he gets his tune-ups.”
The next “tune-up” is actually a third open heart surgery, “sometime after Super Tuesday [March 6],” said Bret Baier.
“Bret would drop anything in a second for Paul, but if we can make something work around Bret’s schedule we do,” said Hills Baier. “I know Bret’s head is in the game right now, so whatever [the family] can do to support that we do.”
Just how much Baier’s head was in the game was apparent here last Monday as he ran point during two separate, lengthy sessions to finalize the debate questions.
“To Governor [Rick] Perry, it would be, ‘Why haven’t you proposed anything to address the homeownership crisis, or do you consider any government introduction to be an overreaction?’” suggested panelist Kelly Evans, a Wall Street Journal correspondent.
“Good,” Baier responded. “Short and sweet. And no place to hide.”
Later, Baier, who describes himself as a political independent, explained they weren’t trying to create “gotcha” moments.
“I learned while covering Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that you had to carefully construct a question so that there was no way out other than to provide a direct answer,” he said.
This particular conversation took place between debate prep sessions as Baier was filming a “walk and talk” segment about all the activity going on at the convention center that would run during that night’s edition of “Special Report.” He was regularly interrupted by voters, curiosity seekers and unabashed fans who wanted him to pose for photos and sign autographs.
“I’m so glad he’s doing the debate,” B.J. Crosby of Charlotte confided while Baier chatted about sports with her husband, Jerry, and got in a good-natured plug for brother Tim’s coverage in their neck of the woods. “He’s always calm and he never seems biased for or against any candidate.”
Hours later, with the debate smoke still clearing, the candidates themselves may or may not have agreed with that assessment. But it was clear that under Baier’s deft moderating, some news had been made and rhetorical lines in the sand drawn: Romney finally agreed to release his tax returns (albeit with some hedging), Perry declared South Carolina to be “at war” with the federal government (over voter ID laws) and former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich refused to back down from or apologize for his proposal that poor kids be put to work as school janitors (“No,” was his blunt, one-word response when asked if this was insulting, particularly to poor African-American children).
Not long before midnight, Baier continued to work his way out of the debate hall, frequently pausing to chat with colleagues and sign autographs. Amy had flown in at the last minute to attend what could be the last debate her husband moderates during this rapidly evolving primary season.
Inside his brain, another clock was already ticking.
“We head out early tomorrow morning [to D.C.],” he said, clutching Amy’s hand tightly in his. “Gotta get back to do my show tomorrow night.”
The cameras were off. But the smile was still there.
“I tell my wife, ‘It’s a lot like drinking from a fire hose.’ It never stops.”