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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : One Voice, Many Channels : TV commentator. Lawyer. Air-quality regulator. Hugh Hewitt is a widely heard voice of conservatism--one embroiled in politics from the cool distance of the sidelines.

October 22, 1995|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The folks on the cul-de-sac know Betsy better than Hugh. She's the one who's at home most. She bakes brownies for a neighbor frazzled from a kitchen remodel. She shares sunny waves with friends from the helm of her van. She loans her Phillips screwdriver to the other wives of unhandymen.

"So, have you got a husband tonight?" her neighbors will ask in jest.

That's because they know her husband, Hugh Hewitt, is as busy these days as Colin Powell's book agent.

TV show host. Radio personality. Lawyer to builders. Law professor. Columnist. Air-quality regulator.

Hewitt, 39, is a vocal conservative--graduate of the Reagan Administration, friend of the late Richard M. Nixon--frequently embroiled in politics from the cool distance of the sidelines.

He co-hosts a weekly TV talk show on KCET and until recently hosted a weekly three-hour radio show on KFI-AM (640). He is Gov. Pete Wilson's newest appointee to the mighty South Coast Air Quality Management District. A lawyer by profession, he is now also a law professor at Chapman University in Orange.

And, in a project that will bring him national exposure, Hewitt will host an upcoming PBS show called "Searching for God in America." He will write and edit a book by the same name that publishers, he says, believe will rival William Bennett's best-selling "Book of Virtues."

"We often tease Betsy," says longtime Irvine neighbor Sharon Hufstader in a Carolina drawl, "that we realize she will probably have to move, once Hugh runs for President."

Hewitt claims no designs on the White House, but he is certainly among the most recognizable voices of conservative politics in Southern California.

When Orange County was casting about for a temporary CEO to run the bankrupt government, the conservative Lincoln Club suggested Hewitt. He says he spoke with some members of the board of supervisors because he believed he could offer "a clear theory of how government ought to operate." He withdrew his candidacy early on, though, when support appeared to be leaning elsewhere.

Some insiders say Hewitt has accumulated enough political chits and horsepower in the region to run for state office if he feels like it. He says he doesn't.

Fans of his free-lance punditry see him as a Republican renaissance man: reasonable, erudite, informed. Critics see him as a rightist troglodyte: an inflexible ideologue echoing the rhetoric of unsuccessful Senate candidate Mike Huffington.

If not elected office, what does Hugh Hewitt want?

For starters, he wants privacy. He initially declined to be interviewed for this story, quoting 18th-Century lexicographer and author Samuel Johnson: "No man takes my measure but my tailor." Hewitt, with a stand-up comic's timing, added: "And I don't have a tailor."

After criticizing the profile format as a highly subjective form of journalism and lambasting several Times reporters he encountered in his many enterprises, Hewitt reluctantly agreed to talk. There would be conditions: limited discussion of his private life; no talk of relationships beyond parents, friends and spouse; no answers to questions about childhood mischief and girlfriends or did he ever inhale.

"That is of no consequence," he says. "Hundreds of times I've been asked those questions. I neither ask them nor allow myself to answer them."

*

The sleek new law offices of Hewitt & McGuire are housed in twin ebony towers in Newport Beach. Ten stories below the windows of his suite is the San Joaquin Marsh, among the county's most coveted wetlands. It is not a known habitat of the threatened gnatcatcher, which does live on nearby land that Hewitt's clients fought to build on. (But it's close enough for the tiny songbirds to fly by.)

Mark Petracca, a UC Irvine associate political science professor who disagrees with Hewitt on most issues, has to cackle about Hewitt's office vista. "Now he can shoot whatever gnatcatchers remain out his own window!"

Hewitt doesn't seem bothered by the barbs of his many left-leaning friends. One of his closest is former White House communications director Mark Gearan, until August a spokesman for the most powerful Democrat in the world.

Gearan marvels, thinking back on their undergrad days. He was working for Massachusetts Congressman Richard F. Drinan, a Jesuit priest who had been the first member of Congress to draft legislation calling for Nixon's impeachment.

"I met Hugh right after Nixon resigned, when he was among a small minority of people who were defending the Nixon Administration," says Gearan, who now oversees the Peace Corps. "From Day One, we disagreed. Some things we could appreciate in each other's perspective, but I had never met such a young conservative. I've tried, with obvious limited success, to persuade him on many issues, but I just think he's severely misguided in his views. But it has provided robust dinner conversation."

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