From bartender to anchor, he has covered the Pentagon and White House, moderated presidential debates, and traveled the world
By Jon Shakill
Bret Baier is the anchor of FOX News Channel’s “Special Report with Bret Baier” that airs Monday through Friday from 6 p.m. – 7 p.m. Eastern. According to Nielsen Media Research, “Special Report” averages nearly 3 million nightly viewers and is one of the top five rated cable news programs in the U.S.
As a long-time journalist and TV anchor, Baier has held many high-profile positions, including Chief Pentagon Correspondent and Chief White Correspondent for FOX News. Throughout his career he has interviewed many leaders and public figures of the highest order, including President Bush and President Obama, as well as Governor Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign. Baier also moderated five presidential primary debates in 2012, and anchored the presidential election night coverage for FOX News that garnered over 12 million viewers.
Baier is also an avid golfer, connoisseur of fine spirits, and lover of the occasional cigar with close friends. Throughout the course of this interview we touch on everything from how he started out as a bartender early in his journalism career, his enjoyment of spirits, cigars and golf, as well as how these hobbies have from time to time intertwined with his professional career. We also touch on some of the behind the scenes details of his most high-profile interviews and experiences.
Let’s Get it Started
Jon Shakill: I understand that you were a bartender as a side job when you first started in the news business. How did that affect your love for fine spirits and also help you develop your career?
Bret Baier: I was a bartender during my first on-air job, which was in Hilton Head, South Carolina at WJTV. I had three jobs: I was a reporter functioning as a one-man band covering the low country of South Carolina; I bartended and waited tables at an Applebee’s; and I also delivered food. I did find that bartending was an interesting place to get little tidbits about what was happening around town. People would come in and just chat.
I later bartended up in Washington, DC, as I was sending out tapes to go to the next stop, which was at a local affiliate for a station in Rockford, Illinois. In DC I really found the whole bar conversation to be interesting. You forget how much people will open up to the bartender, and just tell them what’s on their mind. In Washington it can be pretty amazing to hear people talk. I was working at the upper bar in the middle of Union Station called Center Café. People would be on their way to get their train, and I would see all kinds of lawmakers coming in and grabbing a drink or grabbing lunch. It was through chatting with them that I began to realize that I could get some interesting insights.
BB: I think it was definitely part of it, especially the knowledge about what was available. I would also test certain spirits based on people’s recommendations. I had never really been a fan of Scotch during college, but over time I began to appreciate it. I’m also a golfer, so I went over to Scotland numerous times with my golf team during college and afterwards, and I also found an appreciation for Scotch while over there.
JS: I understand that your favorite Scotch is Macallan. What is your preference of the type of Macallan and how do you like to drink it?
BB: Yes it is — I usually have the 18 year old type and I like to drink it with just one ice cube. Someone recently gave me a 60 year bottle of Macallan as a gift, which I didn’t even know they made! I tried it, and of course when you drink something like that, you have to drink it neat, it’s just unbelievable. It is prominently featured on my bar at home, I put it right in the middle.
JS: What do you keep stocked behind your bar?
BB: I have a whole bunch of different single malts. I’ve got Laphroaig, Oban, Balvenie, and different years of Macallan. I have Johnnie Walker Black and Blue — I have a lot of friends who are into the different Scotches. My wife drinks vodka occasionally with her friends, so I have all different kinds of vodka. I have basically everything you would need to have a party with high-end stuff.
JS: You mentioned that your wife enjoys vodka, is it something that you enjoy at all?
BB: Somewhat, although rarely. Every once in a while I will have a dirty martini though. When I do, I like Belvedere. I will also occasionally drink tequila. I’ll drink Patron Silver on the rocks with a couple limes.
JS: Regarding the experience of enjoying a fine spirit, when is your favorite time to enjoy a nice Scotch or a dirty martini, and who with?
BB: We have a place down in Naples, Florida, so sitting out on the back screened-in porch with my wife, listening to the water is great. In the summer time I might enjoy a tequila or a vodka or something like that, and just relax at the end of a long day, then we’ll take a walk together and it’s a pretty cool thing. In the winter time, it’s nice to sit outside and have a Scotch and cigar with a few buddies at the end of the day.
Coming Together Over a Cigar
JS: So what about cigars? When do you like to enjoy a cigar and how often?
BB: I would say that it’s more of a social thing for me, rather than a regular thing, but I do enjoy cigars. I’m partial to Romeo y Julieta. There’s a new one that came out not too long ago called Romeo with a funky looking label on it, which I really enjoy. I also like Fuente and similar strong cigars. It’s not an all the time thing for me though. I have some buddies who smoke cigars, so there’s a place over at their house out on the back porch, or even at my house we might pop outside and smoke one.
JS: How does the conversation arise when you all decide you want to take the time to go outside and smoke a cigar together, who or what initiates that?
BB: It’s usually when the ladies are together chatting about one thing or another, and the guys are kind of looking around wondering what to do. Then someone will say, ‘hey you guys want to pop out and have a cigar?’ In those social settings it’s great, because you just sit around and chat and I think those are the most fun times. In DC it’s easy to get caught up in a lot of politics and about what each party is saying, so it’s just nice to sit around and just chat about whatever and have a cocktail and a cigar.
JS: Do you have many friends that differ strongly in their political views, and do you find that having a cigar is a way to bring you guys together?
BB: Yeah I definitely have friends on both sides of the aisle and some are more vocal than others. I often find that I’m the mediator, or moderator, of conversations sometimes. But yeah, of course sitting down with a cocktail or a cigar breaks the ice and sometimes is what people need in order to come together and talk. It’s not adversarial by any means because the people sitting around are all friends of mine, so it’s not exactly one of these out-reach type things.
JS: It’s interesting that you mention that because it seems that in a bygone era it used to happen a lot more often, where you would have people sitting down over a Scotch and a cigar and coming together to break the ice. Especially with you being right in the heart of it, can you comment on that?
BB: That’s definitely true. It’s a different atmosphere now and frankly there’s not as much socializing between parties and between lawmakers that there used to be. A lot of people say that it’s a bad thing, but it’s just a different town now than it was in the [President] Regan and [House Speaker] Tip O’Neil time. The poker games between Republican and Democrat Senators or Congressman just don’t happen. You know, you’re right, I think it is something that’s missing from Washington. That said, some of that interaction happens other places. It’s not always a bar or in a place to smoke a cigar. I’ll also note that it’s a little tougher to smoke a cigar in Washington than it used to be. Not as many places allow you to do it anymore.
JS: You mentioned golf as one of your hobbies. Is that what you like to do outside of your busy work schedule?
BB: Golf is a big one. I played golf in college and I still golf. I’m a five handicap, although it’s a very giving five because I don’t play as much. You speak about the synergy between a cigar and drink and the conversation, what I should’ve added is that at the end of a golf round with really good buddies, sitting out on the porch, having a drink and a cigar looking over the 18th green — that is a great end of the day for me. I can think back to many of those 19th holes that were pretty satisfying. So golf is a big thing. But I also have a 6 and a 3 year old, so where I really get the most joy is spending time with them. They’re both aspiring golfers, so I guess the plastic clubs in the crib must have worked. It’s a lot of playgrounds and birthday parties and all the 6 and 3 year old stuff that you do.
Networking with a Cigar and a Spirit
JS: Have you ever made any major work contacts, or obtained sources through golf, spirits, or cigars?
BB: Yeah, I can definitely point back to times where over a cocktail I’ve met someone through someone else, and that ends up leading to something that transpires into a story that breaks. I covered the Pentagon for five and a half years, and it wouldn’t surprise you that a lot of Generals and Colonels and military brass of all types, like Admirals, enjoy their spirits and the occasional cigar.
I remember being on a number of different trips — I traveled to Iraq 12 times, Afghanistan I think 13 times — and being with a General or some type of commissioned officer and having a cigar and a cocktail. It’s definitely something that I can pinpoint. Those times when you are dealing with somebody that you’ve established a relationship with, being in the anchor or correspondent position is about the trust that they have in giving you information. They have to know that you’re not going to burn them and that you’re going to report stories fairly. Maybe not in the exact way that they want, but use the information in a way that is fair. That requires a bond, and sometimes to get that bond it takes some personal time, and so those moments of having a cocktail and smoking a cigar I think bond people more than other things.
JS: Did you find that some of the sources opened up even more based on that experience, or that you found out things that maybe wouldn’t otherwise be available?
BB: Yeah! Definitely, I mean I’ve had conversations that almost made me drop my cigar, because I was just thinking ‘whoa I didn’t see that coming.’ I’ve gotten some pretty hot information that way. Some of that stuff at the end of the conversation ends up having to be kept off the record at their request. I think people do feel at ease when they’re in those environments — I know I do. I wouldn’t say that it’s a part of my job to take people out to have a drink and have a cigar, but if the experience arises, it’s often beneficial.
JS: It sounds like a lot of relationship building, which seems like a very necessary aspect of your job?
BB: Yeah, I mean it’s often a necessary aspect of a lot of people’s jobs. Whether it’s business, sales — it’s all about relationships and trust, and those experiences help.
JS: That really gets to the core of it. That is what really embodies Cigar & Spirits Magazine, it’s about the personal relationships and the times shared with others that the cigar and the spirit can facilitate.
BB: You know, once you’ve had that shared experience with a person you’ve just met, or a source, or someone that you’re trying to establish as a source going forward, the next time you sit down is even that much more comfortable. You’ve already been down that road of sitting down with each other and sipping a Scotch and having a cigar, and so the conversation actually flows even better. I do think there is something to it. I don’t believe that it is an absolutely necessary common denominator for source development, but I’ll tell ya, it makes things easier.
Rise to a Successful Career
JS: Was being in the news business as an anchor something that you always wanted to do? What was your first big break that allowed you to take the next step?
BB: In high school I was the sports editor of the paper and I knew I always loved media. I interned at a local station in Atlanta, Georgia and so I had it in my mind that’s what I wanted to do. In college I continued that and became the anchor of the local college station, and it was something that I always had in the back of my mind. The break I got really was when I interned at CNN for Bernard Shaw, who was the chief political anchor at the time. After that, I sent out tapes from my college days and landed my first job in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Then I bounced around small market TV for a while. I went from Hilton Head to Rockford, Illinois, then to Raleigh, North Carolina. That’s where I landed at a powerhouse affiliate called WRAL, which is a CBS affiliate in Raleigh, for two and a half years.
That’s when I got a call about this start-up news channel, called FOX News Channel. I didn’t really know what it was, but I had an agent at the time who told me that the station wanted me to be the South East guy. So I asked if they wanted to interview me, and my agent said no. They had seen my tapes and wanted to hire me to start the Atlanta bureau. So I started the Atlanta bureau of FOX News out of my apartment with a fax machine and a cell phone. I hired freelance crews and I started the journey. It was the best decision and best break I’ve ever had.
JS: Fast forward to when you were the Chief White House Correspondent at FOX News, what was it like behind the scenes being at the White House every day?
BB: It is a real privilege to be one of the reporters that is covering the White House for your network. In political speak it is the eye of the storm. It is the place by which, and from which, news emanates from Washington. It’s essentially the center of the universe. The dynamic is interesting between the different networks and correspondents — you become friends even though you’re competing against them. It’s a small area that you’re operating in every day and also traveling with the president around the world. So you get to know these people really well.
When I covered President Bush in his second term, he was under fire for the war — around 2006 and 2007 Iraq was really taking its toll. It was also unique in the sense that a former colleague of mine, Tony Snow, was the White House press secretary at the time. He has since passed away from cancer. But it was a really great experience at that time.
JS: So what is it really like being inside the White House, aside from the work aspect?
BB: Essentially it’s history every day. You walk in and potentially the story that you’re covering or breaking is going to be either the story of the day, week or month, and it could affect a lot of things long-term, and you’re at the center of it. Every day being in the White House briefing room, pressing the press secretary for answers, and occasionally going into the Oval Office for what’s called a “pool spray,” President Bush would be sitting next to a world leader and you’d walk in, and sometimes the president would take questions and sometimes he wouldn’t — just like President Obama.
You walk in there, and you’re standing by the couch in the Oval Office, and you get a sense of how privileged you are being one of the few reporters covering the president. Then you realize all the history that has taken place inside that room, and then you focus like a laser on trying to ask the question of the day and to advance some story that you’re trying the chase. When you’re there you can think back to all the major events in your life and who was president at the time, and those things taking place right there.
Asking the Tough Questions
JS: Throughout your career as a reporter, you’ve been known to ask tough questions of some of the world’s foremost leaders and public figures. Do you have an example of a time when you really rubbed someone the wrong way and they took it personally?
BB: Not for a long period of time did anyone take the questions personally. But in 2010, the interview I did with President Obama was three days before the healthcare act was being voted on in the House. So we were trying to get details of what was in that bill, so I was pressing the president. To make a long story short, we were originally given a lot of time, and then it was whittled down to not a lot of time. The president was loquacious in his answers and taking a lot of time at the beginning of the interview. So to get some of the specifics I had to press, and sometimes interrupt, so it became a little contentious in the Blue Room of the White House.
As I was doing that interview, the first answer he gave was six minutes, then the next answer was four minutes, and suddenly there’s an aide over his shoulder in my view showing me an iPhone that was ticking back from 15 minutes — which was the time it was whittled down to. So the pressure I was feeling to get everything in created an interesting dynamic, and it became a little contentious. But since then I’ve had many conversations with President Obama off the record, so it didn’t affect the ability to communicate with him after that tough interview. But later, I did an interview with the Republican Governor Mitt Romney when he was a candidate for president during the primary season, down in Florida. I pressed him on a host of issues which I thought would be in his wheel house, but he got, what seemed like, pretty upset about the interview being a little contentious. So those things happen, but reporters ask questions. After that I had many conversations with Mitt Romney, just as I did with President Obama.
JS: When you are interviewing someone like President Obama or Mitt Romney, and pressing them like you did, what allows you to maintain your composure and confidence and not back down under that kind of pressure?
BB: I think it’s just a sense of not hearing answers to questions that you ask the first time. I was a big fan of the late Tim Russert because he would ask pointed questions, but then he would really listen to the answers, and play-off of those to try to get answers to the question that he originally asked. He would do it in a respectful way, but in a way that said to the audience and to the person being interviewed, that ‘you didn’t answer that question, let’s try this a different way.’ The biggest part about interviews that I’ve learned is listening to the answers, not so much about asking the questions. I think viewers appreciate the follow-ups and when you press a little bit.
JS: But when you’re sitting down with the President of the United States, you must feel added pressure?
BB: The big interviews with presidents, candidates at the end of campaigns — certainly there is added pressure because there are high expectations. People want to know a lot — they want to know the answers to key questions. Maybe more so sitting in the Blue Room of the White House when you don’t have much time. Most times though — I’m not an attorney — but I imagine it would be the same way a lawyer prepares for Q&A on the stand with testimony and cross-examinations. You do a lot of preparation and map it out as best you can, and then react in real-time when you can. At the end of those high-pressure days is another great time to have a Scotch and cigar and reflect on the experience.
Made for Primetime
JS: Tell me about your experience moderating the FOX News Republican presidential debates in 2012. You must feel a great deal of responsibility in a situation like that. How do you make sure you’re asking the right questions and not allowing the candidates to take over?
BB: I think I moderated five Republican presidential debates in that primary season. It was a challenge — as a team we really tried to come up with questions that were pointed but clear. The candidates had a certain amount of time and there were opportunities for follow-up. The toughest part about those debates is when you have a lot of candidates on the stage. I think we had up to eight and nine candidates at one point, so time management becomes an important aspect.
You want to be fair with the time, but obviously there are some candidates that are way ahead in the polls and they are the focus of a lot of attention, so you want to be able to ask them questions and follow-up. But you have to give equal time to all of the candidates. So managing all of that is the biggest juggling act.
JS: Tell us about your experience with your FOX News show, Special Report. What kind of preparation goes into it on a daily basis?
BB: I took over for Brit Hume, my friend and mentor, on January 5, 2009, so five years ago now. When I first started, I would look at the graphic to make sure it said “Special Report with Bret Baier,” because it was daunting to take over something that was so established. Over time, with my team, we’ve made it our own look and feel and so far the reception has been really good. Viewership is very high and we’re excited about that.
I usually get in about 9:30 a.m. and we have a team meeting at 10 a.m. to go over the stories of the day and make an early decision about what the panel topics are going to be. It could change through the day, but they’re just topics, we’re not giving specific ideas and there’s no practice with the panel. It’s organic and just goes based on the topic. Often times the show completely changes by 5 p.m., or even five minutes before the show starts it will completely shift around. Those are challenging days, but they’re also the best days because it’s breaking news. We find that people respond to learning about stuff that’s happening quickly, and then we provide analysis at the end of the show.
Those are good days when we can get the latest information, even though it’s logistically challenging. I’m blessed to have a stable of pundits and analysts for my all-star panel. Charles Krauthammer is a wonderful friend and a brilliant analyst. No matter where you are on the ideological spectrum, I think most people can agree that Charles is pretty brilliant in the way that he speaks. We also have George Will who we just got from ABC. We have Juan Williams who has been a long-time figure and also Mara Liasson and Steve Hayes from the Weekly Standard. Steve and I went to college together and were in the same fraternity, so I’ve known Hayes for a long-time. He’s shared a cocktail and a cigar with me too.
BB: It’s funny that you asked that. I mentioned my friend and colleague Tony Snow before, and when he died, I had a viewer email in and sent me this write-up by John Walter Wayland from American Citizen that’s called “The True Gentleman.” I read it on-air the day Tony died. I think it encapsulates what a gentleman is, so I actually have it hanging on my wall in my office, it’s right in front of me — it’s just funny you asked that. It’s a picture of Tony that says 1955 – 2008 and “The True Gentleman.” So this is what I read on-air:
“The True Gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies; who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity, who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another, who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements; who speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy; whose deed follows his word; who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own; and who appears well in any company, a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.”
Jon Shakill: That’s a perfect way to end, thank you for your time Bret.
Bret Baier: Certainly, thanks Jon.