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With New TV Show, Radio Talker Thom Hartmann Brings Substance to Style

It’s 9pm in the middle of a busy week and Thom Hartmann, the nation’s most popular progressive talk radio host, is just sitting down to dinner with his wife Louise at a crowded Washington restaurant.

It’s 9pm in the middle of a busy week and Thom Hartmann, the nation’s most popular progressive talk radio host, is just sitting down to dinner with his wife Louise at a crowded Washington restaurant.

As host of “The Thom Hartmann Program” (heard on 120 affiliates, according to the show’s Web site), Thom did his customary three hours of radio earlier in the day, and just wrapped up an episode of his hour-long daily cable television program, “The Big Picture,” which airs on RTTV and was just picked up by Free Speech TV, which runs the show over the Dish and DirecTV networks. (It’s also available from iTunes in podcast form.) It’s a typical 14-hour day for Hartmann, but he’s hardly worse for the wear. At 59, he looks at least 10 years younger, and his energy is still bubbling over. Louise, just back from a day at the hospital with a friend who rushed there in an emergency, begs off the interview, wanting nothing more than a quiet meal after a stressful day.

The Hartmanns are new to the nation’s capital, drawn here from Oregon by the television deal with RTTV, which includes the brand-new, state-of-the-art studio where “The Big Picture” is produced, near the National Press Building, not far from the White House. Louise handles much of the business end of the show, while Thom is the on-air personality. The staff also includes a producer, director and researchers. The Hartmanns have complete editorial control of the show, which appears on RT and is produced in its facilities through a licensing agreement with the network. The RT network was launched in 2005 as a Russian counterpart to the BBC News Channel, Al Jazeera and France 24.

For the radio program, the Hartmanns have built a new studio on Capitol Hill.

On the short walk from the RTTV studios to the restaurant, we’ve already talked about four books and a couple of the founding fathers. Thom shows me the books he’s downloaded to his smart phone. I notice The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Thom has a theory about Franklin: The founder, he says, had attention deficit disorder. Hartmann is something of an expert on the subject.

“He’s the poster child for ADD,” Thom says of Franklin. “And if he didn’t have ADD, we wouldn’t have the United States of America.”

“Franklin was all over the map,” he continues. “He never held a job more than five years in his life, he had three or four different careers…In my first book on ADD there’s a whole chapter about Ben Franklin.”

That’s right, his first book on ADD; there are several in the Hartmann bibliography — part of a total of 21 books he’s authored on subjects ranging from spirituality to progressive politics to the Kennedy assassination. In fact, his observations about Franklin’s condition could well apply to Thom Hartmann himself; his careers have ranged from ad man to social reformer, electronics repairman to author. The one constant has been that all these enterprises were created and run by Thom and Louise together — including the radio show, which, according to Talkers magazine, the chronicle of the talk radio industry, reaches 2.75 million unique listeners per week. The Hartmanns own “The Thom Hartmann Program,” which is syndicated by Dial Global (which also carries big right-wing talkers such as Neil Boortz and Michael Smerconish, as well as top liberals like Ed Schultz and Bill Press), as well as by Pacifica Radio. The show is also simulcast in television format by Free Speech TV.

Hartmann is a true believer in the power of media to convert the skeptic to the progressive point of view, and his radio guests are mostly conservatives, whom he debates with gusto, armed with an historian’s knowledge of America’s distant and recent past.

“I think many of them come for the same reason that I’m having them on, which is that they believe in their cause and they know that having a debate is one of the most effective ways to get the word out, because…people love genuine debate,” Thom explains. “This isn’t gratuitous bullshit debate like ‘Crossfire’ [the famed CNN show of the 1990s] used to be. We try to do genuine debate about real issues that we really care about. It’s not just Republicans and Democrats throwing talking points and politicians yelling at each other. And…I think they do our show because they know that I don’t do ad hominems.”

Indeed, “The Thom Hartmann Program” is an unusual mix of substantial subject matter with the high energy and on-air calls from listeners that define the tried-and-true talk radio format. Thom is passionate about maintaining that mix, believing it a format that can change minds: “I just got an e-mail today from a guy who said, ‘I’ve just been listening to your show for a couple of weeks and I want to tell you it’s the best radio show on the air and I love it so much. And, by the way, I’m a die-hard conservative but I’m not listening to Limbaugh anymore because I can predict what he’s going to say and I’m learning from you.’ My prediction is that in a year I’m going to get an e-mail from him saying, ‘I used to be conservative.’ Because it happens constantly. Literally constantly. People call into the show or send e-mails or post on our message board, ‘I thought I understood politics until I started actually listening.'”

Obama as Rorschach Test

Progressives often forget how many people voted for Barack Obama reluctantly; he won their votes simply because he didn’t represent the administration that tanked the economy. On the other hand, progressives pinned such hopes on the new president that they were destined to be disappointed, though Thom thinks it’s just a matter of time before they come to terms with Obama, the politician.

“I think most people who voted for Obama just voted for a politician,” Hartmann says. “They thought he was a better politician than John McCain. They voted for a politician, they didn’t make a big emotional investment. But in many ways, Obama — because his candidacy was so novel and so vague — he was a Rorschach test. He was our nation’s Rorschach test. And for real hard-core conservatives, they saw in him their greatest fears… And for a lot of liberals, they saw in him their greatest hopes. He’s the savior. He’s the guy who’s going to lead us to the promised land. Just like many conservatives in 2000 fell in love with George W. Bush — and by the end of his administration they were trash-talking him on television because they had gone through the five stages of grieving.”

“I’m quite serious about this,” Hartmann continues. “Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages apply to relationships just like they do death. There’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Conservatives went through that with George W. Bush and finally around 2007 they got to acceptance. And liberals and progressives are going through that right now with Barack Obama. Some of them are in depression, some of them are in bargaining, some of them are in anger, some of them are still in denial, and some of us have hit acceptance.”

On “The Big Picture” television show, Hartmann hosts a more evenly divided mix of progressive and conservative guests than appear on his radio program. The show has its own visual style, mixing the raw feel of shots from a shoulder-mounted camera with more standard high-tech videography. Hartmann introduces each segment with a stand-up piece that often draws on his knowledge as a self-educated historian, as he did when I appeared on the show on election night.

Before he settled in at his desk to talk with me about the role played by astroturfing groups to shape the 2010 midterm congressional elections, Hartmann did a riff on a bit of history I knew nothing about — the passage of the Tillman Act in 1907, which forbade the direct participation of corporations in elections, a law undone by the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case. (You can watch Thom Hartmann’s riff here: it begins at around the 9:02 mark.)

At the restaurant table, Thom illustrates the impact of Citizens United on the re-election prospects for Barack Obama, who, he says, will now probably have spend $1 billion in order to win the presidency.

“Which means every morning when he gets up — 365 days a year, Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, Christmas — he’s gotta raise $1.3 million or he’s not going to be president. Now with that comes some problems. Then you’ve got senators,” Hartmann continues, “Six or seven years ago a senator who is an acquaintance of mine said, ‘I wake up every morning knowing that I have to raise $20,000 today.’ And he said, ‘It’s a horrifying thing to think of and it prevents me from doing most of my job.’ Because they have to rent an office that’s not on federal property and just sit there dialing for dollars all day and have fundraisers every evening. It’s no way to live. It’s no way to do politics. It’s crap. It’s crappy politics. It’s totally corrupt.”

Until progressives turn their focus to getting the money out of politics, Hartmann believes, they can’t succeed with the rest of their agenda. “If we don’t understand that our politicians live in that world and the only thing that’s going to change that world is movement politics — grassroots activism — we’re deluded. We have to do for [the cause of getting] money [out of] politics what movement politics did for civil rights, what it did for women’s suffrage, what it did for abolition… We’ve got to do that for extracting — for getting this cancer out of the core of our political system.”

A Lifelong, Globetrotting Partnership

Thom and Louise Hartmann met when they were teenagers, and have been a team ever since. Thom was a 17-year-old student at Michigan State University and Louise was still in high school. Both hung with the crowd that ran the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society.

“I met Louise at a party,” Thom Hartmann says, “and the next time we got together was at the university because she was spending most of her time hanging out with the SDS crowd, at the Student Union at MSU, and that’s where we hung out. There were a bunch of people who were basically skipping school from high school who were hanging out with people who were skipping school from college. That and we were all just protesting the war and getting high. Or one or the other, or both.”

Hartmann, always handy with electronics, began a stereo-repair business in the back of a local head shop, and when the business took off, he dropped out of college.

“I was making more money than my dad,” he says. “So what did I need to go to college for?” Louise proved to have a head for business, so she and Thom teamed up on all of the couple’s subsequent ventures.

Around the same time, Thom Hartmann found his way into commercial radio, using a tape he made of a show he did on a college PA system as his audition reel. That landed him a gig as a weekend DJ for a local country music station, WITL*.

Since that time, radio would appear to be the major recurring theme in Thom Hartmann’s work life — something that has nearly always had a place in his life, except for the years he and Louise ran a non-profit organization that creates safe learning environments for abused children through the international network of Salem International, a non-denominational Christian humanitarian organization. The Hartmanns lived for a time in Germany, where they worked with Salem. They also founded a school in New Hampshire for children with attention deficit disorder.

The Hartmanns’ work with Salem has also involved the opening of Salem communities in Russia, Togo and Uganda. “We took over [a Uganda] prison farm and we started a refugee center there,” Thom says. “lt’s no longer a refugee center: It morphed into a hospital, then a relief center, and then it became an AIDS center.”

No Red-Diaper Baby

Despite the radical roots of the Hartmann partnership, Thom Hartmann is no red-diaper baby. When he was 13, Hartmann’s father had him knocking on doors for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Around the same time, the elder Hartmann took his son to a meeting of the John Birch Society.

“I used to have these knock-down, drag-out battles with my dad about politics. When I was 16, he actually kicked me out of the house one night, and then later apologized. He was a good man, but he just was so committed to his politics,” Thom explained. “Louise and I were there when he died in his living room, and through his last breath I’m sitting here with my hand on his shoulder and I look across the room. Here on the wall are his two favorite pictures: me shaking hands with Pope John Paul II, and George Bush on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln declaring ‘Mission Accomplished.'”

The photo with the pope is the product of an unlikely invitation the Hartmanns received from the Vatican in 1988 to take part in a meeting at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer retreat. Thom Hartmann’s book, The Prophet’s Way* about Gottfried Müller, the founder of Salem International, had found its way into the hands of a friend of JPII.

“So we’re sitting at home in Vermont and we get this fax that says, ‘You are formally invited to a private reception with His Holiness Pope John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo on the second of June in 1988’ – or whatever year it was… And I thought it was just a joke,” Thom says. “So I sent a fax back to the fax number — it was an Italian fax number — saying, ‘Certainly; I accept.’ Back comes this 12-page fax from the Vatican with how to come, and it said, you know, if I’m bringing my wife …and she’s going to be able to visit the pope, she has to cover her arms, she can’t show her legs below the knees, and blah, blah blah. And I went, ‘Holy crap! This is the real Vatican!'”

Initially, Thom says, they told him that Louise would not be permitted to shake hands with the pope, but the forbidden handshake ultimately took place.

More recently, Thom and Louise traveled to the Darfur region of Sudan in March 2009 with Ellen Ratner of Talk Radio News Service, with whom he and Louise now share office space in Washington. They did their radio show for a week about 15 miles from the nearest refugee camp.

“It was a nightmare,” he says. “We were doing it and we were 500 miles from the nearest electricity or the nearest paved road. This is a country the size of Texas that, at that time, had less than 20 miles of paved road and one town with electricity. There were 47,000 people. In a town that was originally at 7,000 people there were 40,000 refugees. No doctors, no medicine. The only food was what we had brought in on a plane. There was one well that the UN had drilled about 10 years earlier that people took turns pumping 24/7 so that they could get water. It was just incredible. It was out in the high desert and during the day it was 120 degrees. At night it would get down to 40 degrees.”

Ratner and the Hartmanns weren’t just there to do radio, though. They traveled with supplies sent in by Christian Solidarity International. “We flew in literally strapped to about five tons of food in the belly of a cargo plane — a 50-year-old Buffalo C-700, twin-prop cargo plane that was leaking gas out of one engine and hydraulic fluid out of the other,” he says.

Sudan is about to vote on a referendum which, if passed, would allow for the secession of the south — where the population is predominately Christian and animist — from the northern part of the country, where the population is overwhelmingly Muslim. I asked Hartmann what he thinks will happen if the people of the south, as expected, vote to secede.

“I think that there’s going to be war,” he says. In Darfur, the radio team spent part of a day with Salva Kiir Mayardit, the de facto president of South Sudan. Mayardit told Ratner in a more recent trip, that’s “it’s going to get more bloody,” according to Hartmann. “The Chinese are involved now, Hartmann adds. “They’re arming both sides.”

The Insurgency at Home

And what of our politics at home? What advice does Hartmann have for progressives as they look to hold the line against the corporate interests dressed in Tea Party clothing?

First, he offers the obvious, urging progressives to join organizations such as Democracy for America, the group born out of Howard Dean’s presidential bid, and to donate to non-profit progressive media outlets. (We’re all for that, here at AlterNet!)

But further, Hartmann advocates a takeover of the Democratic Party by progressives, much as the right wing has taken over the GOP. Run for a spot on your local school board, he says, and for positions within the Democratic Party itself.

“[I]f we were sitting around conspiring how to take over NBC — you know, like Comcast and stuff…there’s no way we could do it. You’d have to have hundreds of millions of dollars. But there’s a multimillion-dollar organization that makes major decisions about the future of this country — in fact, arguably influences it more than any individual corporation — that is literally saying, ‘Come on in and take a leadership role in this organization. Come on in and take over.’ It’s called the Democratic Party. We have to show up, infiltrate it and take it over the same way conservatives did with the Republican Party in the ’70s.”

I nudge him. “So that means….”

“Showing up at those monthly party meetings — those incredibly boring monthly party meetings — and working your way up,” Hartmann says.

“And that’s how people get seated as delegates at the national conventions, too,” I offer.

“That’s important stuff,” he says.

Indeed, one of Hartmann’s favorite lines when talking to his progressive listeners is, “Tag, you’re it.”

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