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JUST Chatting With Bill Hemmer

November 18, 2009

Like most people, I have created a life in which I am, for the most part, surrounded by people who think like me. Most of the people in my life are over-educated liberals whose politics lean progressive, voted for Obama, don’t follow any organized religion and get their news from NPR, not FOX. I didn’t do it on purpose, but like-minded people tend to congeal. We find each other and stick together until we become a blob of sorts. Group think, after all, is only a problem when it’s a group that doesn’t think like you.

When I started JUST CAUSE, it was with the express intent of focusing on the “just causes” that unite us as a people. Especially at a time when our nation seems so divided in such a rhetorical, dogmatic and artificial way. I was convinced that if we could just sift through the crap, we could realize that, at our core, we all want the same things. By discarding our labels and focusing on issues, I believed we could solve problems ourselves and not wait for our government to do it for us.

So when I was contacted by someone at FOX about JUST Chatting with Bill Hemmer, I leapt at the chance. I called a friend to say that I was going to interview Bill Hemmer, and his response was, “Alyssa Royse and Bill Hemmer sit down to chat…  Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.”

It wasn’t. It was evidence that no matter where we come from, when we talk about the things that matter to us, we are all human. It was great.

If you don’t know who Bill Hemmer is, then you’re not one of the more than 1.5 million viewers who watch America’s Newsroom on FOX every day, making it the 7th most watched news program on cable TV. Prior to joining FOX, he co-hosted American Morning on CNN, and has reported from the field in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Jerusalem, Ground Zero and even all 37 days of the election recount in Tallahassee, Florida. He is one of five kids, a devout Catholic, and a generous volunteer. With his aw-shucks grin and affable manner, Bill is definitely an All-American kinda guy.

All of which is very impressive, but made me a little nervous. I was not sure how much Bill and I would find to talk about.

I had nothing to worry about.

Our preliminary chatter was what you’d expect. I told him about the incredible sunshine in Seattle and that I was staring across a placid Lake Washington in which trees were reflected perfectly, making a forest twice the size of the one I routinely walk in. He told me he was on the 14th floor of a building in Manhattan looking out at more buildings. “I win,” I said. “I dunno,” he responded, “the beauty is all about the people.”

This is a guy who loves people. For the next 45 minutes or so, we talked about people.

Most of the causes that he supports have to do with a deeply held respect for people. He is quick to discuss his relationship with his family.  Specifically though, he discusses watching his mother, who is an only child, care for her mother. This is the root of his concern for senior citizens.

“I came to see this group of Americans as the most overlooked group in the country,” he tells me. “We give enormous amounts of attention to children – who need it, and we need to keep helping them – but when I look across the landscape, it’s clear that the elderly need our time and attention. At one time they were all young and vibrant. And at some point, most of us will be old.”

He’s right. I know that I am lucky. I had grandparents who profoundly shaped my life and who I am. Both my father and step-father had parents who were farmers, and from them I have a deeply ingrained sense of thrift, environment – and do crazy things like make my own soap, have huge gardens and even relish the annual tradition of canning fruits and veggies with my dad in the fall. My mother’s parents were over-educated, very artistic world travelers with a shrewd sense of politics and business. It is so clear to me that I am the product of this lofty brew.  I was lucky enough to watch all of them age, and in the case of my grandmother Alice, hold her hand and watch her take very close to her last breath. These people shaped me. They cared for me in the same way that I care for my daughter.

Before speaking with Bill, I’m not sure I gave much thought to what happens to other people as they age. (Which is ironic, seeing as my grandmother, Eone Goodenough, was the founding director of the New Jersey Division of Aging, the first US state agency to focus on aging!)

“They give so much to us,” he continues. “My grandpa lived to be100. I learned to be a gentleman from him. He was an enormous gentleman. He had respect for himself, grandma and everyone he had contact with.”

That’s not the kind of thing you can learn in school. We learn it from watching the people closest to us and how they treat each other. We have been sharing a home with my father, who is now 75, for the last 10 years. It started as a convenience, then an economic decision for everyone, and now it just seems natural. He helps with my daughter – like a third parent – and I like to think that we give him the kind of close family interaction that we all need to stay engaged, healthy and even young at heart. After all, in every corner of the globe, households have been multi-generational forever. It makes sense on so many levels.

“It seems like as we get more busy, we have less time for the people who always made time for us,” Bill muses. He’s right, again. But ironically, it’s the opposite in our house. As we get busier, we realize how much we need each other. I like it our way.

Bill is quick to point out that he’s lucky and he knows it. He was given a good start in life, from a supportive family to a top-notch education, he had the tools necessary to succeed in life.

“I am grateful,” he makes abundantly clear. “I think we live incomplete lives if we don’t use our good fortune for the benefit of others.”  That, coupled with his intense love of people and seemingly insatiable curiosity, begins to explain his approach to his job as the co-anchor of America’s Newsroom.

After graduating from college, Bill set off on an around the world adventure that he jokingly calls “The Third World Tour.”  This seems to have shaped him as much as anything else.

“Some people like to think the world is black and white,” he muses. “But when you get out there, it’s really shades of gray.” To be clear, he’s not talking about skin color, but the sense of good or bad, right or wrong that tends to be the hallmark of a sheltered life.

His travels – which were just him and a backpack – took him to every corner of the globe. I asked him why he did it, why did he take such an extreme trip that was well outside the comfort level of most people.

“Travel helps you understand history, religion and politics. It’s probably the only way to begin understanding how we all fit in together.”

With that as his goal, it’s no wonder that the ancient city of Jerusalem stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Jerusalem was the only place that stopped me and forced me to just sit and just read. To try and figure out what’s important to whom and why. This one place is the crux of 3 major religions.”

Three major religions that together account for most of the world’s religious practice. Three major religions whose extremists have prompted most of the world’s major wars, and some existing conflicts.

I’ve not been there, but I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always wondered if the rhythm of such a place actually feels different from the many places that I have been. Instinctively I know that it isn’t the soil itself, but the power that people give it. I know that’s obvious, but the fact that people endow things with such meaning is pretty important.

That’s what drives Bill. Not everyone can take these trips and go to these places to be moved in the tangible way that he was. But he can try, and he does try, to bring the experience into people’s living rooms. He wants to be in the middle of things, but not for the rush of it. He wants to be in the middle so that he can bring it back home. To help one group of people understand the experiences of another group of people that they will never get to meet.

Back to the group think thing. Group think is only a problem when it’s a group that doesn’t think like you. So how can we share stories in a way that help people understand how others are thinking?

Maybe that’s part of the job of media. Maybe that’s what Bill and I have in common, besides the obvious humanity that defines most of us once you strip away the labels.

Bill’s been at this a lot longer than I have, so I just asked him, “how do you think those of us in the media can use our platform to increase understanding about complex issues, rather than just in creating the divisiveness?”

Embedded in this is an admission that I rarely watch TV news anymore. I can’t stand it. Especially all the pundits. Even the pundits that I agree with make me crazy because they’re so busy bitching about the other side that they dilute the dialog down to being playground fights between bullies. They’re so busy beating each other up they never help us figure out what matters, much less what we can do about it.

“I think it’s just a case of giving people good information, accurate information,” he suggests. “If we can take them through things so that they have a greater understanding, from watching us that day, then I feel good.   I think the biggest turn off for people is hearing us talking about something and not making sense, or making assumptions on behalf of the audience. We need to give them facts and let them digest it.”

That would be nice. But some things are too big to digest. And Bill was on the frontlines for many of them. Like the September 11 bombings of the Twin Towers. He reports, “no one was able to interpret what was happening.” But when asked what the biggest issue in the news is now, he doesn’t hesitate. “The economy.”

I find that interesting. Given his front-row seat to everything going on, he is very clear that the economy is bigger than Katrina, the wars, even the election. Maybe I’m naïve, but I had expected an answer with more obvious “sex appeal.”

But think about it. Roughly 275,000 people lost their homes and jobs in Katrina. Millions have lost homes and jobs to the recession. Sure, there’s no force of nature, no war of race, religion or resources. Just a quiet desperation that most of us would rather avoid.

Silence. And it’s a fitting silence. How are we supposed to talk about such a thing? In a way that finds solutions? Gives hope? Finds reason? Maybe it’s best not to try.

Bill, however, seems hopeful. He seems to remain convinced that if we find a way to reach people, share stories about people, we can turn things around. We’re back where we started, “the beauty is all about the people.”

For his part, Bill’s gonna do what Bill does. He’s going to spend his morning with a million or so Americans. He’s also set up some scholarship funds at both the high school and the college that he attended – specifically to support students interested in communications and international issues. It seems like a trademark glance to the humanity that will create our collective future.

Every May, Bill also hosts the George Knittle Memorial Bayley Place Golf Classic (named after his late grandfather) at the Western Hills Country Club Golf Course in Cincinnati, Ohio. The continuing care retirement community offers a full spectrum of health and wellness lifestyle services to meet the changing needs of seniors. The tournament helps to support Bayley Place residents, where 6 out of every 10 residents can no longer pay the full cost of their care.

It’s all fitting. He has chosen to give back based on the things that mean the most to him. And that boils down to not only a deep respect for the people who gave him a chance, but to offering that same chance to others.

It’s just that simple.


This interview appeared in the November / December issue of JUST CAUSE Magazine. JUST Chatting is a regular feature in each issue.

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