By Michael A. Lipton
Updated February 11, 2002 12:00 PM

As the Iran-Contra scandal intensified in 1987, Sean Hannity was a man in conflict. Though he had a full-time job—remodeling houses in Santa Barbara, Calif.—”I just remember not wanting to go to work during the hearings,” he says. “I stayed home and taped them.” Later he would call talk radio shows to defend Lt. Col. Oliver North and the Reagan Administration’s sale of weapons to Iran to fund covert operations in Nicaragua. “Other people would call in and want to respond to me—not the on-air host,” says Hannity. “That’s when I thought it was time for a career change.”

So the contractor remodeled himself. Nowadays Hannity, 40, drills newsmakers and hammers liberal adversaries as cohost of FOX News Channel’s prime-time debate show Hannity & Colmes. The show, which gives equal time to Alan Colmes as Hannity’s left-of-center sparring partner, ranks third in cable news viewers (1.1 million), behind CNN’s Larry King Live and FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor with Bill O’Reilly. And that’s just Hannity’s night job. By day he’s a syndicated radio host whose hawkish views (“I think we absolutely have to finish the job in Iraq,” for example) can be heard on 125 stations around the country. Rush Limbaugh, on nearly 600 stations, may have more listeners. But Hannity, whose lucrative new radio contract will earn him about $10 million over five years, “will be bigger than Limbaugh,” predicts Talkers magazine publisher Michael Harrison.

“It’s quite remarkable,” says Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, “how quickly this college dropout from Long Island has blossomed into a national conservative voice.” Growing up in Franklin Square, Hannity used to lie in bed at night listening to the likes of confrontational conservative Bob Grant. The talk could also get heated in the robustly right-wing Hannity household, where Sean, the youngest of four children of Hugh, a Manhattan family court probation officer, and Lillian, a homemaker, “needed to assert himself,” says his sister Therese (whom he calls Teddy), 42, a homemaker.

An indifferent student, Hannity tried two different’ colleges in two years before quitting out of financial necessity and launching his own Rhode Island house-painting business in 1982. Three years later, with $50,000 in savings, “I wanted to see the country,” he says, and wound up in Santa Barbara as a building contractor. After his Iran-Contra epiphany, he landed a weekly one-hour call-in show at a liberal radio station run by U.C. Santa Barbara. He lasted less than a year. “I was terrible,” he says. “But I was born opinionated. I was a news junkie. Once I got behind the mike, that was the only place I wanted to be.”

In 1991 he got to hone his act at WVNN radio in Huntsville, Ala., attracting headliners like then House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, who recalls the cocky young host as “a down-to-earth, happy guy.” Hannity also managed to charm Jill Rhodes, then a political columnist for the Huntsville Times. Calling her up to solicit story ideas, Hannity would amuse her with his frequent voice-mail messages. Intrigued, she attended a 1992 mayoral debate he had set up. There, she recalls, “I looked at his face and I said, ‘That is the man I’m going to marry.’ ” They wed in 1993.

By then Hannity was at WGST radio in Atlanta and trumping his rivals in the ratings. He caught the ear of Roger Ailes, a former media adviser to George Bush Sr. In 1996 Ailes hired Hannity for his fledgling FOX News Channel. “Frankly, he should have fired me,” says Hannity, who struggled reading off a TelePrompTer. “I was god-awful. Then one day, it finally clicked.”

Hannity insists his new fame hasn’t really changed his life. Though he, Jill, son Patrick, 3, and 8-month-old daughter Merri share a five-bedroom house on Long Island, “he could be happy living in a cardboard box,” says Jill, now a homemaker. He has two pairs of shoes, and every Christmas she pleads with him to let her buy him sweaters or a watch. (He glances at the time on his beeper instead.) His syndication deal included a driver, but he turned it down. “I’m at peace with myself because what I talk about is the way I live,” says Hannity, a churchgoing Catholic. “I believe in faith, family and country. I really keep it that simple.”

Michael A. Lipton

Jennifer Frey on Long Island