THE SUNDAY PROFILE : One Voice, Many Channels : TV commentator. Lawyer. Air-quality regulator. Hugh Hewitt is a widely heard voice of conservatism--one embroiled in politics from the cool distance of the sidelines.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The folks on the cul-de-sac know Betsy better than Hugh. She's the one who's at home most. She bakes brownies for a neighbor frazzled from a kitchen remodel. She shares sunny waves with friends from the helm of her van. She loans her Phillips screwdriver to the other wives of unhandymen.

"So, have you got a husband tonight?" her neighbors will ask in jest.

That's because they know her husband, Hugh Hewitt, is as busy these days as Colin Powell's book agent.

TV show host. Radio personality. Lawyer to builders. Law professor. Columnist. Air-quality regulator.

Hewitt, 39, is a vocal conservative--graduate of the Reagan Administration, friend of the late Richard M. Nixon--frequently embroiled in politics from the cool distance of the sidelines.

He co-hosts a weekly TV talk show on KCET and until recently hosted a weekly three-hour radio show on KFI-AM (640). He is Gov. Pete Wilson's newest appointee to the mighty South Coast Air Quality Management District. A lawyer by profession, he is now also a law professor at Chapman University in Orange.

And, in a project that will bring him national exposure, Hewitt will host an upcoming PBS show called "Searching for God in America." He will write and edit a book by the same name that publishers, he says, believe will rival William Bennett's best-selling "Book of Virtues."

"We often tease Betsy," says longtime Irvine neighbor Sharon Hufstader in a Carolina drawl, "that we realize she will probably have to move, once Hugh runs for President."

Hewitt claims no designs on the White House, but he is certainly among the most recognizable voices of conservative politics in Southern California.

When Orange County was casting about for a temporary CEO to run the bankrupt government, the conservative Lincoln Club suggested Hewitt. He says he spoke with some members of the board of supervisors because he believed he could offer "a clear theory of how government ought to operate." He withdrew his candidacy early on, though, when support appeared to be leaning elsewhere.

Some insiders say Hewitt has accumulated enough political chits and horsepower in the region to run for state office if he feels like it. He says he doesn't.

Fans of his free-lance punditry see him as a Republican renaissance man: reasonable, erudite, informed. Critics see him as a rightist troglodyte: an inflexible ideologue echoing the rhetoric of unsuccessful Senate candidate Mike Huffington.

If not elected office, what does Hugh Hewitt want?

For starters, he wants privacy. He initially declined to be interviewed for this story, quoting 18th-Century lexicographer and author Samuel Johnson: "No man takes my measure but my tailor." Hewitt, with a stand-up comic's timing, added: "And I don't have a tailor."

After criticizing the profile format as a highly subjective form of journalism and lambasting several Times reporters he encountered in his many enterprises, Hewitt reluctantly agreed to talk. There would be conditions: limited discussion of his private life; no talk of relationships beyond parents, friends and spouse; no answers to questions about childhood mischief and girlfriends or did he ever inhale.

"That is of no consequence," he says. "Hundreds of times I've been asked those questions. I neither ask them nor allow myself to answer them."

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The sleek new law offices of Hewitt & McGuire are housed in twin ebony towers in Newport Beach. Ten stories below the windows of his suite is the San Joaquin Marsh, among the county's most coveted wetlands. It is not a known habitat of the threatened gnatcatcher, which does live on nearby land that Hewitt's clients fought to build on. (But it's close enough for the tiny songbirds to fly by.)

Mark Petracca, a UC Irvine associate political science professor who disagrees with Hewitt on most issues, has to cackle about Hewitt's office vista. "Now he can shoot whatever gnatcatchers remain out his own window!"

Hewitt doesn't seem bothered by the barbs of his many left-leaning friends. One of his closest is former White House communications director Mark Gearan, until August a spokesman for the most powerful Democrat in the world.

Gearan marvels, thinking back on their undergrad days. He was working for Massachusetts Congressman Richard F. Drinan, a Jesuit priest who had been the first member of Congress to draft legislation calling for Nixon's impeachment.

"I met Hugh right after Nixon resigned, when he was among a small minority of people who were defending the Nixon Administration," says Gearan, who now oversees the Peace Corps. "From Day One, we disagreed. Some things we could appreciate in each other's perspective, but I had never met such a young conservative. I've tried, with obvious limited success, to persuade him on many issues, but I just think he's severely misguided in his views. But it has provided robust dinner conversation."

Flying west on Air Force One with President Clinton to attend Nixon's funeral in Yorba Linda last year, Gearan mused about how his path has crossed that of his old college pal. Hewitt had been the director of the Nixon Library & Birthplace when it opened in 1990.

And what does Gearan see for his friend in the future? He pauses before answering.

"As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, he wants to be involved in the action and passion of our times. That sums Hugh up; I've seen that in him over the past 20 years."

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During a 3 1/2-hour interview with a reporter he didn't really want to talk to, for a story he'd rather not have written, Hewitt breaks only once, to brew a pot of coffee. He looks younger than he appears on the TV screen.

His choices in life have been shaped not only by intellectual study and hard work, he says, but by glorious luck and timing.

The youngest of three sons, Hewitt was raised in the "wonderful little industrial town" of Warren, Ohio, a Catholic stronghold where his father is an apolitical attorney and his mother a nurse who retired to raise her brood.

From parochial school, where he was "phenomenally bad at sports" but excelled on the debate team, Hewitt followed his brother to Harvard in 1973, about the time Watergate hearings were tightening the noose around Nixon.

"Intellectually, I was already not so much pro-Nixon as I was, first and foremost, an anti-Communist," he says, citing the influence of writings by Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. "That's my political and ideological compass."

In college, Hewitt began supporting Massachusetts political candidates whose ideology seemed attuned to his own. He stuffed envelopes and walked precincts for Senate candidate Paul Cronin, a House member who lost to Democrat Paul Tsongas in the post-Watergate sweep of Republicans from Congress.

Hewitt next, and more fervently, worked for Gerald R. Ford's presidential campaign, acting as state youth director for Massachusetts, which Ford all but conceded to Jimmy Carter.

"Our only significant contribution was we managed to get a few hundred people up to a New Hampshire rally, which was a contested state," Hewitt says.

Still, it was his first brush with a man who would become President.

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Hewitt thinks he has had his share of breaks.

The perks of attending Harvard, for example, included having neoconservative Bill Kristol, who recently launched the national political magazine Weekly Standard, read and critique his senior thesis.

And a 1978 chance meeting on a Cambridge street with the son of Harvard political philosophy professor Harvey Mansfield, head of a premier school of conservative thought, led to a job as a researcher for Nixon son-in-law David Eisenhower.

Working out of the former Western White House, Hewitt spent eight months as a research aide on "Eisenhower at War," an epic book on World War II and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In February, 1979, Hewitt began what proved to be a defining relationship. He spent hours every day with Nixon as he began to emerge from the dark period after his 1974 resignation, helping with the research for the political treatise "Real War."

Living in a tiny San Clemente apartment, shopping with his bachelor grocery list at Albertson's, Hewitt began plugging into the local political scene.

Some new friends urged him to check out "a real comer" named Pete Wilson at a San Diego fund-raiser. There, at the "Wilson for Mayor" event, Hewitt met his future wife, Betsy. They like to jokingly thank Wilson for "13 years of happy marriage."

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"Fortuna, fortuna, fortuna," Hewitt says of his relationship with Nixon. "[It was] sheer luck that I was able to work with a great man in history at close quarters."

After finishing "Real War" in New York, Hewitt headed to the University of Michigan law school, where he graduated with honors in 1983.

After a clerkship that involved work for Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both now U.S. Supreme Court justices, the young attorney started his ascendancy in the Reagan Administration.

His loyalty to Nixon paid off time and again, Hewitt says.

When Nixon next tapped him on the shoulder, it was to oversee the construction and opening of his $22-million Yorba Linda presidential library. Hewitt left his post as deputy director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to accept the job.

Around opening time in July, Hewitt committed a widely publicized gaffe that forced Nixon to make a public clarification and inflamed Hewitt's disdain for most journalists.

In what he describes as a "throwaway" remark at the conclusion of a Times interview, and responding to a question about access to library papers, Hewitt said the likes of Watergate reporter Bob Woodward would not get in.

Hewitt recalls Nixon privately saying with a sigh, "Hugh, whaddya doing? You know that's not how I feel.' "

When Hewitt returned a short time later to practice law full time, some reporters speculated that his controversial remark had cost him the library directorship. But both Hewitt and library spokesman Kevin Cartwright say Hewitt had always intended to turn the job over to current director John Taylor. Indeed, while still on the library staff, Hewitt took a part-time job at the law offices of Pettis, Tester, Kruse & Krinsky, focusing on land use and federal environmental law.

"He brought in a very large number of clients very quickly," says former partner Bruce A. Tester. "Clients tend to like him a lot. He has great confidence, a great sense of humor; he works hard, and he cares about his clients,"

In his most prominent case, Hewitt represented the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California's endangered species committee, which was battling for building rights on private land designated as gnatcatcher habitat.

It was, ironically, the tiny gnatcatcher that helped give Hewitt unfettered media platforms for dispensing his opinions.

Someone at KFI, the Los Angeles-based talk radio station, overheard Hewitt speaking at a news conference on the gnatcatcher battles. "They thought I sounded like I knew what I was talking about," Hewitt says with a shrug.

They put him on the air as host of a weekly call-in show.

"The voice of reason," as he called himself on the air, had been heard Sundays from 9 p.m. to midnight until last month.

By the fall of 1991, Hewitt was drawing thousands of listeners to his radio show and had become a host on "Life & Times," a public affairs program produced by PBS affiliate KCET in Los Angeles. The show brings together divergent commentators to debate the issues of the day; Hewitt is the designated conservative voice.

Fellow host Kerman Maddox, a liberal African American political science professor with the Los Angeles City College District, is quite fond of Hewitt, a man he considers his polar opposite.

Racism, he says, is the ugliest subject on Earth. "Most people I can't talk to about race; it's just too sensitive. I can talk to Hugh about race."

When running errands in his Crenshaw District neighborhood, Maddox adds, people ask him more about Hewitt than any other show host.

"They'll say, 'What is the deal with him? Where does he get off?' I think it's because he is very different from most of the people in my area in terms of thoughts and beliefs and the foundations of how they came to them."

A sampler of Hewitt's views: He opposes affirmative action programs; opposed Wilson-backed Proposition 187 to outlaw most public aid for non-residents (he dislikes initiatives), and favors abortion rights but would deny juvenile rights without parental or judicial consent.

Hewitt's intense interest in religion and spirituality--a popular topic on the KFI show--made him a natural choice to host "Searching for God in America," says KCET station manager Stephen Kulczycki. The eight-part series will air on 315 PBS stations next fall.

Already, Hewitt has interviewed the Dalai Lama. Writings on religion by great thinkers, show transcripts and Hewitt's commentary will make up the accompanying "Searching for God" book that is due at its publisher soon.

The twin projects, Hewitt says, compelled him to give up his radio show and cut back to three versus five weeknight TV segments.

Meanwhile, it seems Hewitt has been less visible in the variety of local and national publications he writes opinion articles for, including The Times.

His columns are hipper than one might expect, friends say. But, "He's definitely pop-culturally challenged," says Bill Lobdell, a friend and editor of the Daily Pilot newspaper in Costa Mesa. Lobdell adds: "We had to tell him who the Cranberries are."

With no shortage of media outlets, Hewitt can eliminate the middle man in promoting his views. "If I have something to say, I will either say it on my radio show or my television show or my columns," he says. "I have learned that lesson over and over again, but I'm really convinced of it now."

In a bit of bravado that astonished Hewitt's opponents on the gnatcatcher issue, he crashed their news conference by wearing his press credentials. He sees no conflict in blending his roles as lawyer and broadcaster, explaining that he had no other way to tell his side.

As if he needed more media access.

By the time Hewitt and nine other lawyers set up a new firm two years ago, he was already well-known and wired with local Republicans, says former law partner Tester. He laughs slightly. "You always want to be on the good side of people with their own TV and radio shows."

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Hewitt may ultimately have the most far-reaching impact on Southern California as one of 12 members of the region's AQMD, the smog-busting agency with authority to regulate all industry in Orange, L.A., and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Which means he will help dictate what 12 million Southern Californians breathe.

Hewitt's appointment came after years of his scathing attacks on the board and its staff. He wrote in the August, 1992, National Review that "the No. 1 killer of business in California is the AQMD," which is so powerful as to have "nearly dictatorial authority over four Southern California counties."

He criticized the board's "lethargy," which he blamed on members not being elected. He called it "a monstrous example of that growing phenomenon, the administrative state, under which we trade self-government for being ruled by self-aggrandizing managers."

That would be none other than James Lents, executive officer of the AQMD, whom Hewitt described in the commentary as "straight out of Eastern European Central Casting--earnest, dour, technocratically confident."

Of board members he has now joined, Hewitt wrote: "They are expertly managed. The perks and prestige are great, and the regulations numbingly complex. The rubber stamp gets a workout."

Lents demurs from verbal retaliation, saying he gets along with Hewitt. Lents has voiced concern, however, over whether the second phase of an aggressive clean-air program called RECLAIM will pass next March. Backers worry that the newer conservatives on the board will view RECLAIM as too expensive to business.

Hewitt says he hasn't decided how he will vote, but his voice will be heard.

He has more influence, he insists, by commenting on what others do.

If he were to run, say, for U.S. Senate--a scenario floated by a few locals--his time would not be his own, Hewitt says.

An elected official has to travel too much, he says. Besides, with his present schedule, he manages to see 60 movies a year--even if he has to catch them during the noon hour.

How could he still do that and run for office?

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