It was, Brit Hume thought, about as low as things could go in Washington, that day in the spring of 1974 when the Watergate scandal was spinning toward its inevitable conclusion.
''You could still stand out in front of the White House — all the 9/11 security stuff was years in the future — and parade around with a sign,'' Hume recalls. "There was a guy out there in an old striped jailbird uniform with one of those pillbox hats, wearing a Nixon mask and waving this sign that said HONK IF YOU THINK HE'S GUILTY. Traffic was backed up, and everybody was honking, and the cacophony was so loud that, we heard, the Nixons went to Camp David to get away from it.''
Almost 35 years later, Hume says he was mistaken — Washington was nowhere near the basement of its civility or politesse. ''Those were ugly days,'' he broods, "but these are worse.''
Hume, the first marquee name to sign with Fox News when it went on the air in 1996, is now set to leave his jobs as anchor and Washington managing editor, probably in December. Though he'll still contribute to the network as a political analyst and occasional substitute host of Fox News Sunday, last week's election was his last as an anchor.
His retirement caps almost four decades in the capital, first with newspapers and then, for 23 years — including seven as chief White House correspondent — with ABC News. He has covered everything from Watergate to Whitewater, from Gerald Ford's accidental presidency to Al Gore's near-miss and has won a wall full of journalism awards in the process, including two designations as ''Best in the Business'' by American Journalism Review for his White House stories.
But as he heads off to a life as a gentleman farmer in Virginia, the 65-year-old Hume says he won't miss the job, partly because cable news is hard work, but also because of the morose mood in Washington.
''The atmosphere in Washington has become poisonous, the most contentious and unpleasant that I've ever seen,'' he says. "Nobody really trusts anybody. Any time one party has an idea, the other suspects it's some kind of a sham to gain advantage. . . .
"In a way, journalism feeds off it. We get some great stories. But I think most reporters feel the same way I do — that it's disspiriting to cover things in this atmosphere. It makes news; sparks of controversy make news, but after a while, it gets you down.''
Some critics might see irony in the fact that one of the most visible faces in the rise of cable news, with its spinmeister analysts, panel shoutfests, and frequent forays into ''gotcha'' journalism, decries the level of venom in American politics. Hume concedes television is not blameless.
''Cable news and its content have been a window into and a manifestation of this,'' he says. "And the other thing is that you didn't used to have House and Senate debates televised. If somebody wanted to get up and say something wing-ding, and it happened all the time, nobody paid any attention. Nowadays, people all over the country sitting in their living rooms actually see it.''
But the real culprits, he believes, are changes in the tectonic plates of American politics that have fundamentally changed the way Washington does business. From congressional reapportionment to the 1994 Republican victory that shattered 62 years of near-monopoly Democratic power in the House and Senate, Washington has been steadily remaking itself along viciously partisan lines, Hume says.
''All during my early years as a journalist, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress,'' he notes. "It seemed like the natural state of affairs. The Democrats were widely considered the party of the people, the Republicans the party of the moneyed interests. The Republicans could elect a president sometimes, but it was difficult for them to get anything going in Congress.
"When Ronald Reagan got elected in 1980 and brought in a Republican Senate, the atmosphere changed a little bit, but not much. [Democratic Speaker of the House] Tip O'Neill and Reagan could disagree over policy and still stay friends. But when the Republicans won control of both houses in 1994, it was a real shock. Democrats could not and would not accept the role of minority party. They were far more embittered than Republicans were when they were losing cycle after cycle. They got inured to losing. But Democrats thought it was unnatural.''
But Republican rhetoric escalated as well, Hume says, fueled by bipartisan gerrymandering of Congressional districts to favor incumbents in both parties. ''That was just a sea change in the House,'' he argues. "There are a huge number of safe seats there now, where the incumbents don't have to worry about being reelected, only renominated.
"That's led to politicians on both sides clinging to their base, which tends to be extremist, to keep a challenge from arising in their own party. . . . So the ideological divide has widened; the middle has shrunk. That's caused the House to be a pretty polarized institution.''
It may take years for even a semblance of civility to return, Hume says, though he finds a curiously hopeful note in last month's economic meltdown.
''I thought it was very encouraging, the way Congress managed to pass, in just eight days, that package for credit markets,'' he says. "Ordinarily something like that might have taken months. But here you had [Massachusetts Rep.] Barney Frank, who's a very disagreeable guy -- he'll tell you that himself -- working together with a Republican Treasury secretary.
"That was a bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow. If you polled it, it was very unpopular. It looked to voters like they were bailing out Wall Street big shots. But they worked together, and they did it. . . . The thing that might bring them together next time is entitlements, Social Security and Medicare and all the rest. That's a fiscal train wreck waiting to happen, and when the time comes, I think they'll get together again.''
In part, that possibility might depend on the political skills of President-elect Brack Obama. Hume regards Reagan as the most successful president he covered, Bill Clinton the most talented. He even has some kind words for the current President Bush.
''I have a feeling that people, when they look back, will be a lot kinder to this president than the current scribes are being,'' he muses. "It's really turned out to be a very consequential presidency. When you look at all the problems that have hit, the country has come through in remarkable shape. September 11 was a shattering event. But the net effect was that there've been no further attempts on our mainland. If somebody had said, the day after 9/11, that we'd go seven years without a further attempt, not even a single suicide bomber, we'd have said, 'No way.'
"A recession was already in the works when 9/11 came, and it plunged us into one. But we recovered quickly. Even the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which is widely regarded as terrible White House bungling, is a much more complex story than that which eventually will be told. And while people are understandably focused on the length and the casualty count of the war, at some point they'll consider the policy path on which this president has placed us. It's a very different one, and an amazing one. We're pushing for democracy everywhere, not just playing ball with friendly dictators as we did in the Cold War.''