Pundit’s Progress

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.

Conservative pundits, Tucker agrees, are meant to be professional outsiders. They don’t go to journalism school, or work for the New York Times, or Time, or the Washington Post. They may even have been raised in different ways (the thing about conservative pundits is that they all seem to have found their calling in grammar school). In some sense, they are like East German athletes, or the Boys from Brazil – they are discovered young, and then the system, the network, takes care of them.

The conservative way is not so much a career choice, they tend to believe, as it is the result of liberal-Establishment bias. Tucker would have liked to work for the New York Times. That he didn’t or couldn’t, he believes, with some small resentment, is partly a school thing. He went to Trinity College, which, while the alma mater of George Will, is, he says, not an A-school (and his fortunes there are less than clear – “I think I’m technically a graduate”), plus “there were other factors, which I’m not going to articulate, in journalism hiring in 1991” that stood in the way of his getting a fancy job. Then, too, as a conservative, or “essentially libertarian,” he would not, anyway, he supposes, have been suited to life in a large organization.

So he went the right-wing route. His first job was at Policy Review, a publication of the Heritage Foundation; next he went to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to write editorials for the famous Clinton-hater Paul Greenberg (credited with the phrase “slick Willie”); then he was one of the earliest hires at The Weekly Standard, the Murdoch-backed conservative journal edited by Bill Kristol, which he still writes for; then he began his on-air career at Fox.

Of course, it is unlikely that had he gone to the New York Times or Time, he would now, at the age of 31, be the world’s most ascendant pundit – to be a dissonant voice, rather than an official voice, is of the higher value.

But his ascension is, really, if you analyze it, the product of a double dissonance: first as a contrast gainer to the liberal Establishment, and then as a contrast gainer to – even a betrayer of – the conservative Establishment.

Seemingly at his first opportunity, Tucker stepped out of the conservative-career route, opting for CNN over Fox. Just as smart was his move to become Talk magazine’s house conservative. (I am reminded of Nora Ephron in the late sixties and early seventies writing a column about women for Esquire in its unreconstructed macho phase.)

His profile of Bush in the first issue of Talk is now one of the seminal pieces of the 2000 campaign. It’s also one of the weirdest. While its message is that Bush is a real mensch, at the same time the picture of Bush is probably the most devastating that has been drawn. Here is Bush mocking Karla Faye Tucker (“Don’t kill me”) after her execution and unable to name a personal hero, save for Nolan Ryan.

Tucker claims to rue the piece now. The Bushites got mad at him and closed off his campaign access. But he must have known this would happen – virtually any out-of-the-ordinary negative stuff will get a reporter blacklisted by a campaign.

The effect of the piece, however, was to turn him into the liberal’s conservative.

He is, I think, different from the rest of the right-wing pundit crowd. It’s a matter of tone (during the postelection phase of the campaign, The Spin Room frequently featured a Katherine Harris puppet), and, probably, a more finely honed sense of self-interest. A certain fluidity too. He seems to understand that attackers can’t simply become defenders (not necessarily the same skill set at all) nor defenders attackers (ditto).

The Spin Room is a funny deal. It runs contrary to the usual cable conceit, which is that we’re out here with you talking about those flawed people in there (the Beltway). In The Spin Room, it’s Tucker, on the right, and Bill Press, on the left, clearly representing the inside-Washington position (Tucker seems to represent it most of all). They take e-mail and calls from out there – from a nutty, uninformed populace.

Where Tucker is going, and where, it might make counterintuitive sense, George W. is trying to head himself, is into the Washington comfort zone – a kind of fifties or early-sixties sort of place. We understand how the world works; you don’t. We’re in power; you’re not. It is a funny notion, the Republicans making Washington their town again.

Indeed, contrary to the most basic right-wing doctrine, Tucker digs Washington. The town is not only good to him, it excites him. He likes his fellow Washington personalities. He likes being a Washington personality himself. There’s a reason he has lunch so often at the Palm. It’s not a guilty pleasure, either. “My life is excellent,” he says.

He says it greatly annoyed him when, during the campaign, the Bush people tried to demonize Washington, or, as he says, “us.” He goes on with some feeling about how he has always enjoyed talking to Gore, how comfortable he is talking to Gore (unlike most everyone else in the world), precisely because of their shared Washington insiderness.

I take some issue here with him. Or at least, I bring up the larger outside-the-Beltway perspective, which is, I believe, not a perspective that demonizes Washington but one that discounts it. “What happens in Washington seems to become progressively less important,” I note. “From a power and influence perspective, you lose rather than gain. You don’t have a preeminent position. More and more, you just exercise a back-office function – I think that is the outsider’s perception.”

“How odd to hear that,” he says. “I don’t think that has crossed anyone’s mind here.” A burst of laughter. “Certainly, nobody I know is having an identity crisis.”

Indeed, whether it is one of those transition moments when Washington feels the pride again, or a product of Bush’s tattered but attached coattails, or of his own savvy media moves, Tucker Carlson is a man who has arrived. Politics, left, right, or center, has been very good to him, if to no one else.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Pundit’s Progress