A couple days after Hemmer had been there, he asked Hughes if he would make a good Marine. “Nah,” Hughes replied. “I kind of see you as Air Force.” Air Force is known as the country club of the armed forces. For the next month and a half, Hemmer and Ornstein lived side by side with the soldiers in a bombed-out airport terminal in Kandahar. It was fifteen degrees, and jets bringing troops and supplies would land all night long. “Literally like having the space shuttle land on your head,” says Ornstein. “Every once in a while, a plane would get too close and you’d wake up caked with dust.” The bathrooms were nothing more than cement-block privies without walls. They didn’t have any showers. Hemmer loved it. “Some of the best times in my life were backpacking around corners of the globe where most people cannot go. To live in such a raw environment,” he says, “I found it thrilling.”
“Bill cowboyed up,” says Hughes. “That brought about a level of trust that otherwise he wouldn’t have had.” His sports chatter and joking around with the Marines—they wanted to know if he was dating supermodels—broke the ice, but it was actually “living in the filth” like one of them, as Hughes puts it, that got him his stories. “More than once I would say to myself, ‘I wonder if that State Department guy is supposed to be talking to Hemmer?’ or ‘I wonder if that FBI guy is cleared hot’ ”—in civilian terms, permitted—“ ‘to engage with Hemmer?’ ”
Because of the nine-hour time difference between Afghanistan and Atlanta, Hemmer had to get up at 3 a.m. every day. Hughes still has an image in his head of Hemmer’s “sitting there with fingers in gloves, breathing smoke, doing a Google search,” says the soldier with a laugh. “I just remember seeing that and thinking, You know, it ain’t so damn glamorous.”
Before Hemmer headed back to Atlanta, Hughes pulled him aside and told him he’d make a good Marine after all. “And I said, ‘No way, man,’ ” says Hemmer, “ ‘I’m Special Ops.’ ”
By 2002, Hemmer had covered the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings and moved on to his own three-hour broadcast from Atlanta in the middle of the day. Meanwhile, in New York, CNN’s highest-wattage show, Paula Zahn’s American Morning, was in flux with a seemingly endless pool of contributors. Nothing was gelling, and Hemmer was asked to come to New York to give it a shot. Since he took over the show from Zahn last May, its ratings have climbed 5 percent. While Fox is beating CNN in this time slot (and in many others), a 5 percent gain in the overheated environment of morning TV news is a good trend. As a consequence, feelers have been coming in from major market affiliates, syndicated magazine shows, and other networks.
TV executives measure their talent’s likability with Q ratings, and Hemmer’s are highÂ—both on the tube and in person. He’s gone from simply being a TV fixation to a New York fixation. Sightings of him at Jefferson Market result in postings on Gawker.com. He’s inundated with invitations to movie premieres, to see Springsteen (with Whoopi Goldberg), to charity galas, book signings, and fashion shows (he had a front-row seat at Victoria’s Secret), and to Soho House, from which he disappears like Cinderella by 8 p.m.
Hemmer’s private partnering has become a point of speculation. “When I broke the news to my office at NBC that I was leaving,” says Soledad O’Brien, “people were like, ‘Yeah, congratulations. Now, Bill Hemmer . . . does he have a girlfriend?’ ” He did have one recently, a corporate publicist, though with his schedule, it doesn’t seem like there’s much time or inclination for romantic spontaneity. Hemmer is a man of routine.
From the time he wakes up until the time he’s on air at 7 a.m., he can’t bear to spend more than a few seconds out of news earshot. His alarm goes off at 4 a.m. blaring WCBS 880, which is at that moment running down the day’s headlines. “The headlines invigorate me,” Hemmer says. “That’s what gets my brain going.” At 4:15 a.m., he flips on ABC’s World News This Morning, the only live newscast at that hour. He showers and puts on the suit he’s laid out the night before.
Of course, CNN has a car waiting for him outside his building to whisk him up Sixth Avenue to the studio. The elevator, which Edwin, his doorman, sends up for him precisely at 4:45, takes 28 seconds to get to the lobby. Hemmer knows because before he moved in, he timed it.
The conventional wisdom in TV news is that it takes eighteen months for an audience to find a show. But Hemmer disagrees. “That’s too long. People catch on quickly, people will watch, and people will talk . . . or not.”
He says this in a rare moment of downtime in his apartment; he’s preparing to meet some friends for dinner. Of course, in Hemmer’s version of downtime, the cell phone is constantly buzzing, his laptop is logged on to CNN.com, one TV in his office nook is tuned to Lou Dobbs Tonight, and another in his living room is set to NBC’s Nightly News. Tom Brokaw, looking much the elder statesman, is broadcasting from Iraq, with Baghdad as his backdrop.
Hemmer is watching with envy. Since he returned from Kuwait last April, he’s been stuck behind the desk, the longest stretch of stationary time in his CNN career. He’s obsessed with going to the Iraqi capital. “I’m hearing it’s one of the most dangerous environments journalists have worked in,” he says. “I want to learn it.” At the news Emmys in September, he’d attached himself to Ken Robinson, CNN’s senior terrorism and national-security analyst and a former Special Forces officer, who excitedly filled Hemmer in on his plans for a global-terrorism piece. When Hemmer asked to be the reporter, Robinson replied with a look of “fat chance.” The irony of Hemmer’s rising status is that he’s become too valuable to be sent “down-range,” Robinson’s lingo for the most hairy sectors of the war zone.
“Let’s say he has a visa problem, which happens, and suddenly you have this high-profile person out of the net for four days,” says Robinson. “Everyone thinks, Is he going to be crucial to any other breaking news coverage? Is Reagan fixing to die? Is there a pending coup in Russia? There is a global-impact thought process that goes into the management of him as an asset.”
Furthermore, Robinson says, most of Hemmer’s international adventures were under Isaacson’s regime. While the current network brass sort out Hemmer’s travel plans, their decision to keep him deskbound is making him restless.
“Look at Tom,” the CNN anchor says, turning his attention to the TV and full of admiration. He studies the man on the screen further, then says with a big smile, “Doesn’t he look grrreat?”