Tucker Carlson Recounts His Wild Ride in ‘Politicians’

Posted September 15, 2003 at 3:20pm

Leave it to CNN’s Larry King to come up with the overriding theme for “Politicians, Partisan and Parasites,” pundit Tucker Carlson’s lively new book that serves up all kinds of savory tidbits about his adventures in television — and his interactions with Capitol Hill insiders along the way.

“The trick is to care, but not too much,” the chat-show host counseled Carlson about succeeding in the cable news business. “Give a shit — but not really.”

King’s admonition at the 2000 Democratic National Convention kicked off a wild ride for Carlson, who survives a plane crash, a raucous time aboard Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) “Straight Talk Express” during the presidential campaign and a strange train ride with super-conservative talk-show host John McLaughlin (who was obsessed with discussing the subject of pornography).

Prior to the 2000 presidential campaign, Carlson had primarily made his mark penning sharp articles for The Weekly Standard. He had only dabbled a bit in television until the night of that year’s vice presidential debate, when CNN signed him up to be the conservative co-host of a new show, “The Spin Room.”

He was in for quite an education on the state of television news. CNN threw Carlson and liberal co-host Bill Press (now of MSNBC) on the air without a net, much of a budget or too much of a plan. The show careened from night to night, Carlson reveals in his book, primarily because of the herky-jerky direction from “Don,” a senior producer at CNN.

Carlson delivers hysterical rants about Don, who “came off as both insecure and pompous, the sort of person who uses long words he doesn’t fully understand. Moments into our first conversation, he went out of his way to call Larry King stupid. The point was, Don is a whole lot smarter than Larry King. I doubted it.”

The reader is treated to a fun insider account of how the sausage is made on a television show, but Don (and other CNN suits) couldn’t possibly enjoy reading Carlson’s delicious digs.

The hosts are eventually invited to a high-powered dinner with another CNN bigwig, General Manager Sid Bedingfield, for what the boys think might be a vote of confidence. Instead they’re told that the plug has been pulled on their show.

Things worked out for Carlson, who’s now a full-time pundit for CNN’s “Crossfire” and dabbles in print journalism. He serves as one of the two sparring partners from the right (along with columnist Robert Novak) who battle the duo from the left (Paul Begala and James Carville) at 4:30 p.m. each weekday.

He immediately grew to like Carville during a lunch they shared at the beginning of the re-launch of “Crossfire.” During the meal, a CNN exec tried to give the liberal strategist some instructions. “You made a big mistake hiring me,” Carville shouted, according to the book. “I can tell you that. A BIG mistake. Because I don’t give a shit. I don’t. So what are you going to do? Fire me? Go ahead. I don’t care. In fact, I’d like it. I don’t want this job anyway.”

Carlson concludes: “I decided later that this was Carville’s Prison Chow Line Moment, the violent fit that every savvy inmate throws the first time someone tries to cut ahead of him in the cafeteria. The idea is, if you show them you’re a complete psycho the first day, they’ll never bother you again.”

Readers also learn about how everyone from Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) to ex-Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) are “easy turns” for bookers on cable shows. “An easy turn is someone who will leave his son’s sixth birthday party to make it to the studio in time to get barked at for eight minutes on cable. We love easy turns. They help us when we’re desperate.”

Republicans have sniped that Carlson is not conservative enough for their liking and is a weak voice for the GOP on “Crossfire,” which makes the fact that the author barely mentions the ultraconservative Novak rather interesting. And the difference between Carlson’s reverence for McCain — and his tough words for President Bush’s senior adviser Karen Hughes — is striking.

To his credit, however, Carlson was able to stop short of becoming a cheerleader for McCain while covering the 2000 campaign.

“I saw reporters call McCain ‘John,’ sometimes even to his face and in public,” he writes. “I heard others, usually at night in the hotel bar, slip into the habit of referring to the McCain campaign as ‘we’ — as in, ‘I hope we kill Bush.’ It was wrong, but it was hard to resist.”

While Carlson describes the McCain campaign as one big party that he indulged in mightily, he is honest enough to admit at certain points that the drinking, in particular, grew out of control at points. Despite his positive words for the Senator, and there are many, McCainiacs are going to find some of these passages quite painful.

Carlson takes after Hughes for “slandering” him with accusations that the author made up the claim that Bush used the “F-word” in an interview for Talk magazine — even though the strategist was there when the original comments were uttered.

“The average person is incapable of lying with a straight face to someone who knows he’s lying,” writes Carlson. “It’s too embarrassing; the charade is too obvious. There’s no one to fool. Karen Hughes can do it without flinching. It doesn’t seem to bother her at all. Which is either the mark of exceptional discipline or a mental condition. Maybe both.”

There are some bizarre moments in the book, such as Carlson’s recounting of how ex-Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) arrived for a TV appearance shortly before his indictment “blowing at least twice the legal limit. He was plastered.”

Off the air, Traficant demanded a hug from a 22-year-old intern, who felt terrorized and refused to comply. “You goddamn communist,” he yelled before stalking out of the studio.

Carlson learned later that Traficant then “headed to the makeup room, where he physically assaulted the makeup artist. She was still upset by the time I arrived. ‘He grabbed me,’ she said.”

After the indictment appeared so again did Traficant, this time from the safety of a remote location rather than in the studio, and bellowed, “Tell the girls at CNN that if I get convicted, I’m going to be looking for conjugal visits.”

It’s a scene that typifies the book: You’re repulsed by the seamier side of how the sausage is made on cable television, but you still keep turning the page, looking for another morsel.

Carlson himself understands this concept after describing a meeting with Granny D, the elderly woman who walked across the country to support campaign finance reform and become a symbol — but confided to the author that she was really just looking to do something more exciting than playing a board game with shut-ins.

“After food, water and sex, the strongest human desire may be for someone interesting to talk to,” he writes. “It’s what drove me to journalism, and what keeps me there. When you work on a talk show, the parade of characters never ceases. Sometimes they make up stories, or brag about themselves, or try to shout you down. I enjoy interviewing them anyway. It’s definitely more fun than playing Scrabble with the shut-ins.”