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Pundit's Progress

Too cute to be curmudgeonly, too straitlaced to be cool, Tucker Carlson is more than a Bunyonesque character. In this Bushian time, he's gonna be a star!

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Tucker Carlson -- the talking head in the bow tie -- may be the first star of the new Bush administration. He's a genuinely likable conservative. He's jocular. He's optimistic. He's cool, even. He hates Clinton, but he can riff in funny ways about Bill; Tucker isn't tainted by Republican rage. He's as much of a wisecracking, pour-the-beer sort as his fraternity brothers ("Bush is charming, if you like towel snappers, and I do," he says of the Bush magic). But he's also something of a reassuring goody-goody, the guy who married the minister's daughter, his tenth-grade girlfriend ("What can I say? She was cute").

His preppy-good-guy-I-can-make-a-joke conservatism is obviously meant to complement Bush's. The way, say, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss offered a braininess in the early nineties that suggested a new sort of Clinton generation.

Tucker is a programmer's high concept -- a conservative who does humor and affability instead of Bill Bennett disapproval or Ann Coulter rage. It's confidence rather than resentment.

For CNN, which has now given The Spin Room, with Tucker Carlson and Bill Press as hosts, a daily prime-time slot, the notion is to put Tucker up there with Wolf, Jeff, Larry, and Greta. He's not supposed to be a novelty act or sideshow, which most conservative pundits have been during the Clinton years, but the main show. A major personality -- not just another petty, bickering, pigeonholed, partisan hack!

Surely, if you had to cast a next-gen conservative out of the usual suspects of the right-wing conspiracy -- Bennett, Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, John McLaughlin, Brit Hume, Matt Drudge, Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, Lynne Cheney, Barbara Olson, Laura Ingraham, Mary Matalin, Fred Barnes, Tony Blankley, David Gergen, Pat and Bay Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Tony Snow, Ben Stein, David Horowitz, Cliff May, Susan Carpenter McMillan, Larry Sabato, Arianna Huffington, and Lucianne Goldberg -- you'd pick Tucker. He just jumps out at you as the new guy. The good guy.

He is different from the rest of the right-wing pundit crowd. It's a matter of tone and, probably, a more finely honed sense of self-interest.

We're sitting at the Palm, the steak restaurant on 19th Street in Washington, which draws an A-plus crowd (if your version of A plus is, say, Terry McAuliffe), and where Tucker lunches several days a week ("May I have another Diet Coke?" "Right away, Mr. Carlson"). The Palm is decorated with caricatures of local celebrities, including, I note, directly over Tucker's shoulder, his own father, Dick Carlson, who, in Republican administrations past, headed the Voice of America and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Indeed, Tucker's father was Bush's father's ambassador to the Seychelles. Carlson father and son lunch together at the Palm at least once a week.

We are talking, in the same breath, about George W.'s career and Tucker's too. I'm trying to get a sense of this new playing field, about what it's like to have everything start over, and to be the person whom everyone is suddenly noticing. It's a new school year, and Tucker is the handsome student-council president greeting all the parents and the new boys (he looks like a young Malcolm McDowell in the Lindsay Anderson English-boarding-school film If . . .). As student-council president, Tucker is very respectful to headmaster George W. Bush, but behind his back he's the head whisperer.

In fact, Tucker thinks it's going to be quite bad for Bush. That Bush won't be able to overcome his pretender status. "I don't think he has any idea what's coming." Tucker seems excited, too.

While Bush, both rising and falling, is the all-important background to Tucker's suddenly momentous career, the other possibly even more significant variable, also on a rising and falling basis, is CNN (although Tucker has a contract with ABC for punditry services, too).

Tucker, like everyone in the media world, has heard the rumors of big layoffs coming at CNN, possibly with the AOL merger, as many as a thousand heads due to roll. "People are really afraid of Pittman," he says, lowering his voice. "Do you know him? What's he like?"

But Tucker, it is safe to assume, is a keeper.

Indeed, he is a key weapon in CNN's campaign against his fellow conservatives at Fox.

Fox, with its wall-to-wall conservative personalities, has pioneered a cheap formula to capture a solid segment of the news audience, whereas CNN is stuck with an expensive formula -- i.e., news gathering and reporting -- for trying to hold an eroding segment.

On the other hand, the new political order gives CNN some hope it can fight conservative with conservative, personality with personality.

Talk cable is only as old as Bill Clinton's presidency and, obviously, has derived much of its purpose and verve from the anti-Bill chorus. It seems fair to bet that the heavy hand at Fox -- the Roger Ailes hand -- might have a problem with this sudden role-reversal. The process of going from outsider to insider is not exactly an untricky one.


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