MANCHESTER, N.H.—The late-night chase after Sean Hannity is fondly remembered among the adherents of Ron Paul's liberty movement. It was the Sunday before the 2008 New Hampshire primary, and Paul's ever-burgeoning grassroots base was (understandably) angry that their candidate would be boxed out of the Fox News debate. Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and even the somnolent Fred Thompson would get seats, and Paul would not. They got back-up from the state party—then-Chairman Fergus Cullen called the Fox move "inconsistent with the first in the nation primary tradition"—but to no avail.
Revenge only came when someone spotted Hannity. Paul supporters poured out of Murphy's, the bar owned by a state representative who supported their candidate, and pursued the Fox News host. He had frequently dismissed the libertarian-leaning Paul, especially when supporters swarmed live post-debate polls to make sure viewers saw that Paul had won.
"Fox News sucks!" yelled one Paul supporter as he chased Hannity.
"We're not falling for it anymore!" yelled another.
Someone captured most of this on video:
More than seven years later, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul gave his first interview as a presidential candidate to...Sean Hannity. After Tuesday's announcement in Louisville, Paul (flanked by security, some of it from Fox News) strolled over to a square platform where the Fox News host was waiting. While Texas Senator Ted Cruz had given Hannity an in-studio interview, Paul was meeting the host in his home state, with a backdrop of supporters waving pre-approved signs and new 2016 campaign swag. At commercial breaks, Paul spokesman Sergio Gor would signal the crowd; it would break out in cheers. No one chanted anything about Fox News, or whether it indeed "sucked."
The result was a largely friendly interview that allowed Paul to advance his message and settle scores—and to bracket off anything related to Ron Paul as irrelevant. Hannity began a series of questions about Iran by mentioning a new ad from the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, a 501(c)(4) that played a 2007 clip of Rand Paul telling radio host Alex Jones that it was "ridiculous" to think that Iran posed a threat to American security. (The ad did not mention the age of the quote; it is currently on the air on New Hampshire.)
"You know, things do change over time," Paul said. "I also wasn't campaigning for myself, I was campaigning to help my father at the time."
Hannity let that slide. He allowed Paul to frame his opposition to new sanctions that would scuttle the Iran negotiations as his way of telling Obama he'd "have to bring a deal back to" Congress.
"The naivete of the neocons is they don't want to negotiate with anybody," Paul said. Hannity moved on, asking Paul to name his own prerequisites for sitting down with Iran—recognition of Israel, no funding for terrorism, and sincerity of the kind Iran was not offering this week.
Paul had mostly remained quiet about the Iran deal until his launch speech and this interview. He'd also totally avoided discussing Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Hannity brought it up in the nicest possible way:
"What is your take on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and—and the Indiana bill, the 1993 bill signed by Hillary Clinton's husband?" he said, furthering the false notion that the federal RFRA was just like the one Indiana had passed.
"I think our founders would be aghast that anyone would think that they could tell you what do something—to perform a ceremony or be part of a ceremony that's against your religious beliefs," Paul said. "You know, that being said, though, I think the law ought to be neutral and I don't—I don't think we ought to treat people unfairly and, you know, I'm all for treating people with respect and tolerance ... people ought to understand that people's opinions change through persuasion. And if I really want to convince you to come to my political way of beliefs or my religious beliefs, you know, I don't go to evangelism, like if I go to Africa, I don't evangelize by forcing you to accept my religion."
Hannity took that answer and went to a commercial break. He'd actually given Paul more trouble with another question, about a video that showed him asking whether Dick Cheney's ties to Halliburton made him evolve from a skeptic of invading Iraq to the biggest advocate for war.
"You took a shot at Dick Cheney back in 2007, saying that maybe..."
Paul interrupted him. "Once again," he said, "before I was involved in politics for myself."
"Oh, OK," said Hannity.
"That was a long time ago," said Paul.
This was not true. The video was shot in April 2009, shortly before Rand Paul declared his successful campaign for U.S. Senate. Hannity had a golden opportunity to call out the candidate, to argue that he was not so far from Ron Paul as he claimed.
But the Fox News host whiffed. He let Paul walk back the 2009 comments about Cheney.
"That was probably over the top and mean-spirited," said Paul. "I shouldn't have questioned his motives or his patriotism."