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Progressive Profiles: With New TV Show, Radio Talker Thom Hartmann Brings Substance to Style

With an entrepreneurial spirit, knowledge of history and boundless energy, Hartmann brings the singular mix he honed on national radio to the cable news airwaves.

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"I was making more money than my dad," he says. "So what did I need to go to college for?" Louise proved to have a head for business, so she and Thom teamed up on all of the couple's subsequent ventures.

Around the same time, Thom Hartmann found his way into commercial radio, using a tape he made of a show he did on a college PA system as his audition reel. That landed him a gig as a weekend DJ for a local country music station, WITL*.

Since that time, radio would appear to be the major recurring theme in Thom Hartmann's work life -- something that has nearly always had a place in his life, except for the years he and Louise ran a non-profit organization that creates safe learning environments for abused children through the international network of Salem International, a non-denominational Christian humanitarian organization. The Hartmanns lived for a time in Germany, where they worked with Salem. They also founded a school in New Hampshire for children with attention deficit disorder.

The Hartmanns' work with Salem has also involved the opening of Salem communities in Russia, Togo and Uganda. "We took over [a Uganda] prison farm and we started a refugee center there," Thom says. "lt's no longer a refugee center: It morphed into a hospital, then a relief center, and then it became an AIDS center."

No Red-Diaper Baby

Despite the radical roots of the Hartmann partnership, Thom Hartmann is no red-diaper baby. When he was 13, Hartmann's father had him knocking on doors for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Around the same time, the elder Hartmann took his son to a meeting of the John Birch Society.

"I used to have these knock-down, drag-out battles with my dad about politics. When I was 16, he actually kicked me out of the house one night, and then later apologized. He was a good man, but he just was so committed to his politics," Thom explained. "Louise and I were there when he died in his living room, and through his last breath I'm sitting here with my hand on his shoulder and I look across the room. Here on the wall are his two favorite pictures: me shaking hands with Pope John Paul II, and George Bush on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln declaring 'Mission Accomplished.'"

The photo with the pope is the product of an unlikely invitation the Hartmanns received from the Vatican in 1988 to take part in a meeting at Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer retreat. Thom Hartmann's book, The Prophet's Way* about Gottfried Müller, the founder of Salem International, had found its way into the hands of a friend of JPII.

"So we're sitting at home in Vermont and we get this fax that says, 'You are formally invited to a private reception with His Holiness Pope John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo on the second of June in 1988' – or whatever year it was... And I thought it was just a joke," Thom says. "So I sent a fax back to the fax number -- it was an Italian fax number -- saying, 'Certainly; I accept.' Back comes this 12-page fax from the Vatican with how to come, and it said, you know, if I'm bringing my wife ...and she's going to be able to visit the pope, she has to cover her arms, she can't show her legs below the knees, and blah, blah blah. And I went, 'Holy crap! This is the real Vatican!'"

Initially, Thom says, they told him that Louise would not be permitted to shake hands with the pope, but the forbidden handshake ultimately took place.