It's 5:15 p.m. on a dark and freezing Friday in January, and Bret Baier is standing by his desk in the fifth floor offices of Fox News in Washington, D.C., a 10-minute walk from the United States Capitol. He's typing on his computer keyboard as he watches four TV screens simultaneously, preparing for his hour-long "Special Report," which will air live in just 45 minutes. The screens are busy with what's happening right now on CNN, Fox Business, MSNBC and his own top-rated cable news channel. Just like Fox, Baier is king—an average 2.4 million regularly tune in to his show, the most popular cable news program in its time slot, weekdays from 6 to 7 p.m. It's consistently one of the top five shows in cable news.
At age 46, Baier—Fox News Channel's chief political anchor and a longtime cigar smoker—resembles more than anything a blue-eyed, dark-haired and very gentle bear. He is wearing his onscreen uniform of blue pinstripe suit, white shirt and red patterned tie, and his concentration affirms his reputation for hard work. "I refused to allow myself to be outworked by anyone," he once said, explaining his rise to the pinnacle of TV news over his more than eight years in the anchor seat.
He has frequently reported from Iraq and Afghanistan, and has interviewed U.S. Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton and the Dalai Lama. His nightly repeated slogan of "fair, balanced and still unafraid" is a goal many say he has achieved, making his annual salary of more than $7 million a worthwhile investment for the conservative news channel.
"Over time, you build trust," Baier says. "That's why I think ‘Special Report' has built this viewership. If you build it, they will come."
He gets in at 9:30 daily, and at 10 there's a meeting to plan the program. That plan is fluid. "Most days," he explains, "especially good news days, the initial meeting changes eight times before the show." The walls of his office are full of family photos and souvenirs of golf, one of his prime passions. There's a photo of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, two of the best to ever play the game, embracing, and in a glass case, a signed putter and a letter from Palmer. "I won it in an auction," Baier says, "and two weeks later Palmer died. I got a call from the auction company that the putter was among the last things he signed."
He's out of his chair as he's on his computer, reading through the scripts his staff of writers has presented him on all the news stories of the day. "I switched to a standup desk a year ago," he says. "I realized that standing makes me more energized throughout the day. That and coffee. There's also a treadmill under here, so if I feel ambitious I can walk a lot too. I also write scripts myself. I go through everything with a fine-tooth comb, refining and trimming, adding news content when I get new information. And then I write it as I'm going to say it."
When the clock hits 5:50 he is in the studio, sitting at the anchor desk with a lit-up Capitol Building aglow in the window behind him. It's a busy evening, and tonight the show will be seen by 3.5 million viewers-a gunman has killed five and injured eight at the Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida; the U.S. Intelligence community has issued a report declaring that Vladimir Putin attempted to influence the American election; the Dow has almost made it to 20,000 and Congress has officially confirmed Donald Trump as the 45th president. All through the newscast, the Fox control booth, 11 staffers strong, with 24 computer screens at their desks, makes things go smoothly. And, as usual, the words "fair, balanced and still unafraid" end the hour.
When his work is done, Baier is sitting at a table in Shelly's Back Room, an F Street D.C. retreat for cigar lovers a short walk from the White House. "I smoked a little bit in college, but when I came to Washington I really met people who smoke cigars.
"It's a luxury for me to sit around and smoke a cigar," he says. "You can talk to other people. There's a bunch of guys smoking cigars, and it seems like it's an icebreaker, not only with news sources but friends of mine who are cigar smokers."
He pairs his smokes with a glass of wine, or a glass of 18-year-old single malt Scotch. "There's nothing like a cold night, a fire, a cigar and a Macallan with one ice cube in it," he says.
After meeting cigarmaker Rocky Patel, the cigars made by Patel rank among his favorites. "I met him down in Florida and fell in love with a couple of his cigars. The Decade. I like a more elegant kind of cigar, and I smoke the smaller ones or the medium-sized ones. The Sun Grown Maduro. It's fairly mild but it's got complexity. There's chocolate flavor, white pepper flavor."
Baier was born in Rumson, New Jersey, and grew up in Dunwoody, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb. "I always wanted to be a journalist," he says. He was the sports editor of his high school paper, and interned at a local TV station for Ernie Johnson Jr., who went on to call NBA games on TNT. When Baier shadowed him for a week, he took note of the news people working around him and changed his focus to news.
After DePauw University in Indiana he took a job at WJWJ-TV in Beaufort, South Carolina, starting with far more modest subjects than presidents, terrorism and world economics. "I covered loggerhead sea turtle nesting and what colors the azaleas would be in the median that year," he says. He moved from small station to small station, then was hired by Fox in 1997, a year after it was created, as the first reporter in the Atlanta bureau. "When I started, the bureau was in my apartment, with a fax machine and a cell phone. Those were the early days. No one knew who we were. When I called for an interview, they said, ‘Is this the Simpsons network?' "
He covered the Southeast, and Central and South America, for Fox News for four years. "Hurricanes and tropical storms," he says, "and the Elián González case," the story of child custody that stretched between Florida and Cuba. "I went to Cuba six times," he says, and he puffed Cohibas in Havana.
As with so many Americans, 9/11 changed Baier's life. "Then 9/11 happened," he says. "I was called to back up, originally in New York, and I was rerouted to Washington when the plane hit the Pentagon. I started doing live shots for Fox affiliates around the country. A few weeks later they asked me to be the Pentagon guy. Soon after, I was on an overseas trip with then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I never went back to Atlanta."
After covering the Pentagon, Baier became White House correspondent for Fox, and on January 5, 2009, took over the 6 p.m. "Special Report" from Brit Hume. "When I was in the Southeast, I covered the Florida recount in Tallahassee of the 2000 Gore-Bush presidential election, and I filed all kinds of stories for Brit. We hit it off, and he wanted to figure out a way to get me up to Washington. Fast forward to 9/11."
Baier calls Hume his mentor and good friend. "I learned a ton from Brit," he says, "and I credit him with making me a much better writer and correspondent."
Baier lives in the Georgetown section of Washington with his wife, Amy, and their two sons, Paul and Daniel. Paul was born in 2007 with several major congenital heart defects, and has had three open-heart surgeries, eight angioplasties and a stomach surgery unrelated to his heart condition. Baier wrote about his son's health struggles in Special Heart: A Journey of Faith, Hope, Courage and Love (written with Jim Mills), which in 2014 became a New York Times best-selling book.
But right now Paul is "doing great," Baier says. "He's the tallest kid in his class. On the playground, you wouldn't know about his problems. He's got more challenges ahead. We probably have an angioplasty sometime next year, and another open-heart surgery, when he's 13, 14, 15. Hopefully that's the end, but there may be more after that. But he's a trouper. His little brother, Daniel, beats him up; he beats up his brother. It's a normal existence. Which is all we hope for."
The many operations and battles have left Baier with a positive attitude.
"I feel amazingly blessed. I feel so fortunate. I feel like it gave me a perspective on life that changed me forever. It made me a better anchor, a better reporter, a better father, a better husband, a better person. When you see those images of your child, you want to be the person on the operating table, you want to say, ‘Don't do that, I'll do it,' and it's not something you can control. I'm big about control, and making deadlines. So it changed us as a family. We appreciate the moments that we have together. It makes vacations and birthdays and Christmas richer and more rewarding." He and Amy spend time helping the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, which is responsible for Paul's success story.
In Special Heart, Baier makes clear how much he feels the role of religion in their lives helped him and Amy cope. "It was a big part of how we got through it," he says. "We're Roman Catholic, and our faith is important to us, as is prayer. I don't have a problem talking about it. I'm a believer. I don't wear it on my sleeve, but I'm not afraid to say it affects me. And we believe it helped us get through the darkest moments of the surgeries.
"So every night that I can put him to bed I pray with Paul. Every night he prays for the people still in the hospital, so that they can get out like he did."
Baier's new book, which came out earlier this year, is about a very different subject—President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The book, Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission (written with Catherine Whitney and published by William Morrow), deals with Eisenhower's career in the military and in the White House, his farewell address in 1961, and the transition to his successor, John F. Kennedy, as well as between Ike and his predecessor, Harry S. Truman.
Baier was inspired to write the book after a special golf trip. "I was invited to Augusta National—the Holy Grail of golf invites," he says. "I'd never played there before. And when I got there they told me I was staying in the Eisenhower cabin. I was thrilled. It's right there on the 10th tee. I was so excited I couldn't go to bed. I poured myself a glass of wine, and suddenly I had this sense that I didn't know as much about President Eisenhower as I should have. I had a sense that history essentially started for my generation and younger ones with Kennedy."
He booked a trip to the Eisenhower Presidential Library, in Abilene, Kansas. "He's underappreciated," Baier says of the 34th American president. "When people look back at that time, they think of a sleepy time, a happy time. But the truth is it was a really dangerous time, when nuclear war could've happened, a number of times. That was always hanging over Ike's shoulder. Yet he didn't lose a single U.S. soldier in eight years. He created the National Highway System, with bipartisan support. He had the first civil rights legislation since reconstruction. He had this air about him that was leadership."
Eisenhower, Baier says, also gave Kennedy a smooth transition, unlike the one Harry S. Truman gave Ike. "From Eisenhower's perspective, Truman never treated him well. They had a very icy turnover in 1953, to the point where the Eisenhowers stayed in the car on inauguration morning. They didn't go into the White House for the traditional cup of coffee. When the Trumans got in the car it was a silent ride to the Capitol. Imagine how awkward that would be."
Baier was attracted to golf at an early age. "I played on my high school team, and we won the state championship my final year. And I played NCAA golf at DePauw. I really love the game. It's my escape. When I'm walking down the fairway, there's something about it that really relaxes me. So when anybody is concerned about how much golf a president plays, I never worry about it, because I think it's a great thing for the mind, for the ability to think. I know the peace that it gives me, so I hope our commander in chief gets that same feeling."
He carries a four handicap now, but discounts that ranking. "I'm a giving four, a walking wallet with my friends. I was a scratch player, but election schedules make the handicap go up."
When he tees it up, the cigars come out. "Cigars have a common place on the golf course a lot of times. So after a round, we'd end up at some watering hole, and I got an appreciation for them."
Americans' feelings about Fox News are even more complex than a good cigar. Some people swear by Fox and praise its coverage, while others swear at the channel. What does Baier say to those who criticize his employer?
"Most of the most vocal critics of Fox News don't watch Fox News," he says. "Or they don't watch my show. And they have a perception of the conservative leanings of the opinion shows. So I tell them, watch ‘Special Report' for three nights and then e-mail me, get back to me. I do that to the most vocal people on Twitter or Facebook, and I will say, give me a shot. And a lot of times, they come back and say, ‘O.K., yeah, that was fair.' " Fox News, he says, is "like a newspaper. We have a news section and an opinion section. And some people can't delineate, because it's painted with a broad brush. But on the news side we break a lot of stories, we cover stuff better I think than a lot of the national news programs that don't get as much attention as we do.
"Fox News is a wonderful place to work. I've been here almost 20 years and I'm proud of my time here and I'm proud of our news product and I'm proud of our network."
He does acknowledge that the state of journalism in the Internet age, especially with the proliferation of fake news that may have influenced the election, is troublesome. "I think it's serious for organizations that don't take the time to really go back and look through what they're getting before they put it out there. The words ‘reports say' don't cut it anymore, because you get a lot of fake stuff. I spend a lot of time responding to viewers—on e-mail and Facebook and Twitter. They'll say, ‘Why are you not looking at this, why are you not doing it?' And I'll respond, ‘because it's not true.' We could spend every day running down a million not-true stories because of the proliferation on the Internet.
"So it makes our job tougher. But it also makes it more important, because you can go to someplace that you trust—and feel that what you see on that show you can trust. And I want to be that place. And if we make a mistake, we get out there and correct it. We apologize and make sure that we get it right. That's what my show has always done, and will continue to do. And fortunately we don't make many mistakes."
One highly publicized mistake Baier did make, just a few days before the November 8 presidential election, was saying that an indictment was the "likely" outcome of the FBI investigation of the Clinton Foundation's connection with the State Department when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. There was in fact no such likelihood, as Baier readily acknowledges.
"It was a live shot that I agreed to do with my friend and mentor Brit Hume right after my show ended," Baier says. "I went over to his studio, and in the Q & A he asked: Would investigators continue even if she's elected? And I said our sources said yes. And at the end, instead of saying investigators would continue to make their case, to bring it to a prosecutor, I said yes, and it could go likely to an indictment. Well, that's obviously not the process. That's not what I meant to say. But it's how I ended the live shot. And because it was so close to the election it got picked up, as that was the phrase, ‘likely indictment.' And you can't use the ‘I' word anywhere near an election. It became an issue, and immediately I addressed it. Got off the air, typed an e-mail to everybody in Fox, said I screwed up, don't use this, this is what I meant. The next day on air I did it twice, and then finally did a formal apology the next day because it was really important to get out there and clarify that our original reporting was what it was. It was unfortunate because we had had such a great run covering the election and I didn't want to screw up that moment. But words matter. I've learned from that and I won't be doing any more live shots right after my show, off-the-cuff."
In the final weekend of the campaign, Trump and his vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, as well as conservative commentators and websites, focused on the "likely" indictment and ignored the retraction. Does Baier think his mistake affected the election outcome? "No," he says. "We corrected it. It was clearly corrected in the record. And there were many other things that were factors in this election, that affected it. It was unfortunate, but we moved on, and I think we did a pretty great job on election night."
What does he think of President Trump? "I think in his heart, having interviewed him numerous times, that he really wants to make America succeed. But he does it sometimes in a way that really angers people, he does it sometimes in a way that people question what's really going to happen.
"But he is a unique figure in history—he is a billionaire who tapped into blue-collar worries and fears about the future of the country. I think it's so fascinating covering him. He's managed to figure out how the U.S., in a time when there's uncertainty, reacts to things. He won an election, and nobody saw it coming. He surprised everybody. Will he surprise people now and be a better president than his critics say he will be? I think we have yet to see the answer to that."
What we have seen the answer to, though, is the quality of Baier. "Sometimes the show isn't sexy. Sometimes it's like eating chicken and broccoli. But we are going to give you the news. And then we're going to analyze the news, and what it means to you. And that equation has worked, from Brit Hume to me. I think we do it every day, and I hope to continue doing that.
"I have an amazing staff, a stable of correspondents. Just amazing. I stand on their shoulders. I'm really happy at ‘Special Report,' I'm really happy at Fox News, I think the future is bright for our network, and it's going to be an exciting time."
It's a daily mission for Bret Baier—fair, balanced and still unafraid. In fact, a decade from now, he says, he is still hoping to be in the anchor chair. And when it's time to relax, he'll be doing it on the golf course with a fine cigar.
Mervyn Rothstein is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.