Time Warner was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of Tucker Carlson’s book. The least I could do was offer a review.
Political junkies like myself probably know who Tucker Carlson is. For those that don’t, he’s one of the conservative hosts of CNN’s ‘Crossfire’ (Bob Novak being the other). He also writes for the ‘Weekly Standard’ and for some time had his own show on CNN that he co-hosted with liberal Bill Press called ‘The Spin Room.’
Tucker’s book, “Politicians, Partisans and Parasites” explores some of his adventures in the business of cable news, and offers some of his thoughts and opinions on many of the other people who work and operate in the business. Some of it also is personal, as he relates to us several stories that didn’t have anything to do with cable news, but it’s clear that Carlson knows these stories may not have been possible were it not for his status as a televisions news figure.
A couple of things surprised me about the book. First, the length. It’s a short book by today’s standards for such tomes, with less than 200 pages so it reads very quickly. Secondly, it steers away from the formulaic liberal bashing that permeates so many of the books being published these days. Carlson does get his digs in at liberals at times, but that is to be expected. Overall, I found the book to be funny, informative and surprising considering what Carlson has had to say about people in the business – especially about conservatives.
Carlson as a person, is a stark contrast to the image he portrays. My wife always remarks on his haircut, bowties and what she believes is a preppy name (wait until she learns he has a brother named Buckley), and that preppy goodie-two shoes image is what comes across on camera. However, Carlson is a guy that just recently gave up a smoking habit, likes to drink, and has a mouth that would put a guy like Bobby Knight to shame. In short, Carlson has an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude and that made me like him more.
Carlson’s book starts off discussing how ‘The Spin Room’ came into existence, and how dealing with a lousy producer named Don drove him and co-host Bill Press crazy. In one segment, Don wanted Carlson and Press to talk about some panda bears China was sending to the United States because “nobody changes the channel when pandas are on.” After looking at nothing more than a crate on a tarmac for a few minutes they broke for commercial at which point Press blew up and yelled, “Hey Panda Man! I didn’t see the pandas you promised Not one. Not even fur. Where were the fucking pandas?”
Carlson said after that, they didn’t pay much attention to Don and proceeded to basically do what they wanted with the show. Carlson indulged in a few stories about the show, leading us into it’s quick demise (it only lasted 8 months).
He goes on to tell us about his being asked by CNN to co-host ‘Crossfire’ much to the dismay of people like Tom DeLay. His spokeswoman told the New York Post that he was “not a real Republican.” Bob Novak was not thrilled with the idea either. We’re told about his surviving a plane crash in Pakistan three weeks after 9/11 and was told by investigators that they didn’t know why the plane, which landed in the desert, didn’t “burst into a ball of flame.”
Carlson was also the subject of a rape accusation (the woman had severe mental problems and the accusation was bogus) and the fear he experienced in those couple of days. He had an adventure in Vietnam with Senator John McCain, where he was close to spending time in a Vietnamese prison because of his big mouth (he was freed thanks to the intervention of the Clinton state department emplyee James Rubin).
What sets the book apart however, is Carlson’s frank and honest opinions of the people he has to deal with along the way.
Regarding James Carville (one of the liberal co-hosts of Crossfire), Carlson initially thought Carville came off like like a madman in order not to be bothered by CNN suits, but at one point realized that it was all real. “There was nothing phony about his outrageousness. He actually didn’t care. For rea;. And it was clear he was having a great time not caring.” One time, Carville decided to tell Carlson about one of his sexual fantasies – right before ‘Crossfire’ started with a studio audience listening in. When a horrified producer started yelling in Carlson’s ear to get him to make Carville stopped, Carville noticed the look on Carlson’s face and said, “Is that Sam? Is that Sam Feist our corporate butt-boy producer? Sam, if you an hear me, lighten up.” Carlson writes, “It was at that moment that James Carville became one of my favorite people.”
Jesse Jackson was described as “phonier than I imagined” when it was obvious that Jackson didn’t have a clue what he was talking about prior to a segment of “Both Sides” but came off looking like an expert once the cameras rolled. According to Carlson, not only had his staff prepared questions to ask about the issue, but also prepared answers.
He says Chris Matthews hyperactive way of doing his show “is not an act” and gives an example of how Matthews would respond to a simple question like, “Are there any coffee cups in here?”
With regard to Bill O’Reilly, Carlson says the criticism that he merely panders to the reactionary views of his audience is “shallow” but he also says that O’Reilly has a “schtick” and that’s playing the Everyman. He says that all it will take is one time for O’Reilly to do something that conflicts with that image, to put him on the “whatever happened to?” list.
On Jerry Falwell: “I’d gone to the interview assuming Falwell would live up to his reputation as an uncompromising right-wing ideologue. Instead, he was just another publicity hound. And he wasn’t even amusing.”
Al Sharpton: He’s often compared to Jesse Jackson, but Carlson says “Sharpton is smarter, funnier and much less self-righteous.”
Barney Frank: “He defies all probability by being an even more unpleasant in person than he is on television.” Carlson related a story how Frank berated a producer on Crossfire because she wanted to fix his blazer that had become bunched up. He didn’t care what he looked like. Carlson said he spent the break tormenting Frank about wearing makeup and wondering why he did if he didn’t care what he looked like.
James Traficant: “There’s no politician I miss more. Traficant was a terrific guest not simply because he was compusively outrageous and wore a hairpiece that looked like a racoon, but because he was willing to appear on television drunk.”
Bill Bradley: “Travelling with Bradley was like slow death. The made no effort to disguise his contempt for the press or for the political process. His speeches were so dull they constituted a form of aggression aimed at the audience: You are my captives. I can do to you what I will.”
British Press: “I’ve rarely met one (British reporter) who didn’t drink like a Soviet factory worker.”
Carlson also tells us about certain likes and dislikes. He cannot stand party hacks and tells us of a time when he was able to sit in on a conference with a bunch of talking heads for Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal and couldn’t understand how a group of intelligent people could allow themselves to be given certain talking points and just go out and repeat them like robots. He has a different view of ideologues. No matter how outrageous their views may be, to Carlson, they’re honest and that’s what matters.
He accuses Dan Rather of lying when he said “I hate this story because I love my country” with regard to the Lewinsky scandal. Frank Sesno on the other hand, said, “I love this fucking story” with Carlson saying a real newsman loves news and is honest enough to admit it.
Carlson also bemoans the fact that people in Congress these days have such good manners and lacks color. He enjoys the colorful ones, no matter how outrageous they are. He tells us of Don Young, Congressman from Alaska and how he gave a speech before some students at a high school. The issue was federally funded art, and Young said it included “photographs of people doing offensive things.” When asked what things, Young responded, “Butt-fucking. You think that’s art?”
Fritz Hollings is described as “the nastiest politician in Washington.” Hollings response to the Japanese premiers accusation that Americans were illiterate and lazy was a cartoon suggestion: “You should draw a mushroom cloud and put underneath it, ‘Made in America by lazy and illiterate Americans and tested in Japan.’”
Two items in the book stood out to me. The first was Carlson’s criticism of Karen Hughes, one of President Bush’s most trusted advisors. If you remember, Carlson wrote a piece about candidate Bush in the now defunct ‘Talk’ magazine. In the piece, Bush revealed that like most Americans, he uses swear words, especially the word ‘fuck.’ Carlson admired this, and wrote about it. He was shocked to see Karen Hughes on the air a few days later denying Bush had said such things, and that Carlson had made it up to get publicity for himself. When Carlson called her to tell her stop lying about it, she wouldn’t. Not only that, Hughes told him that she never heard Bush talk that way, despite the fact that Hughes was present when Carlson was interviewing him. He attributed her denial to either discipline or a mental problem or both. Carlson also said she was “shamelessly dishonest.”
The second example that stood out, which I thought was hilarious was what Carlson did to people who would attack him on air. He said dismissing such attacks about a print piece is easy, since the person doesn’t agree with what was written. It isn’t personal. By contrast, on television anything said towards you is personal, and there were times when it got to him. He said instead of trying to defend himself, he just drafted a form letter that he would send out to said people. It read:
Dear Mr. Jones,
Classic. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the book because it was a departure from the usual gaggle of nonsense that is being published. In fact, I have stopped purchasing such books because most of them are the same thing, said by somebody else. Carlson’s book is different, and I recommend picking it up.