The death of Fox News contributor Alan Colmes, who passed away in New York City this week at the age of 66, has been greeted with an outpouring of emotion from the channel’s on-and-off-the-air talent. Colmes, it seems, was a nice guy, a good friend, and an ideal colleague: all qualities one would imagine people who have had to spend their lives around the likes of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly would welcome. And while one should usually view tributes to the recently departed with a forgiving cynicism, in this case they are all too believable: Colmes was the most absurd, useless, and mocked television personality in America for many years, precisely because he was nice. In the context of Fox News, being a nice guy—and a “liberal” nice guy at that—meant being a buffoon, and a patsy. Colmes not only played the part to perfection—he defined it.
Colmes had a radio career, but he will almost surely be remembered for his job co-hosting Hannity & Colmes, the dreadful, morally bankrupt, Foxified version of Crossfire that ran for a dozen years and birthed the even more dreadful and morally bankrupt Hannity. The joke about Hannity & Colmes was always that Hannity dominated it to such an extent that Colmes was left as a mere bystander, asking soft questions while Hannity berated whatever liberal guest they brought on that night. This was of course true—Colmes’ air of nearly amused passivity became a running joke in itself—but it understated the way the format of the show set him up to fail. Yes, the two men appeared to have equal time during each segment, and yes, there was often a liberal guest and a conservative one. (Because it was Fox, the conservative guest was usually smarter or higher profile.) But the show, by design, was conservative, and often in racist or homophobic or Islamophobic ways.
A typical segment would begin as follows (I exaggerate only slightly): Hannity would announce that some college professor had said child molestation was fun. This professor had also once said he voted for Democrats. Therefore, the graphics would ask, why do Democrats support a national policy of mandatory pedophilia? Hannity would attack the pale, inarticulate liberal guest, and then ask the conservative how our country had gone so far off the rails. Then it would be Colmes’ turn, and he would say to the liberal guest something like, “It’s not really true that all Democrats love pedophilia, is it?” Then he would ask the conservative guest whether it was painting with too broad a brush to claim that an entire party were perverts and sadists. And that was that.
Eventually Hannity got his own show—with the football tossing and the many American flags—and Colmes was demoted to being a commentator who would occasionally weigh in on the O’Reilly Factor or some other program. He was usually paired with a conservative and would end up playing the role of the liberal guest on his previous program. I always thought this was a strategic mistake from Fox’s perspective, because Hannity is an exhausting presence, and because Colmes made liberals look dumb in a way no other Fox show could manage. To millions of Americans, Alan Colmes was liberalism.
I wrote that Colmes was a nice guy, and we should all be able to separate the personal from the political, and the personal from the professional, etc., etc., etc. But while Colmes may not have been a genius, he wasn’t a complete moron either; in short, he was smart enough to know he was being used, and to take the money that his services demanded. If this is something less than morally reprehensible, it is still pretty gross. We can mourn that Alan Colmes won’t be around to watch the political era he, as an important cog in the Fox News machine, helped usher in; unfortunately, the rest of us have no choice.