Tucker Carlson of Fox News has risen to the top of the cable news heap to become the most-watched, most-hated and most influential commentator in our politically fractured and deeply divisive country.
He’s so popular, now he’s being touted as a Republican presidential candidate for 2024.
The Washington Post, his former colleagues at MSNBC and CNN, and left-wing outposts like Media Matters and the Daily Beast have unfairly branded him a right-wing extremist, a racist, a liar, a white supremacist and, worst of all, a Trump supporter.
Wikipedia identifies him as a paleoconservative –– i.e., an “extreme right-wing conservative.”
International relations scholar Michael Foley, whom Wikipedia quotes, says that “paleoconservatives press for restrictions on immigration, a rollback of multicultural programs and large-scale demographic change, the decentralization of federal policy, the restoration of controls upon free trade, a greater emphasis upon economic nationalism and non-interventionism in the conduct of American foreign policy.”
Though not very nuanced, that’s a generally accurate description of Carlson’s current political positions.
I interviewed a young Tucker Carlson four times in the 2000s when he was co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire” and I was an associate editor and op-ed columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.Carlson, who called himself a neo-con in those early days, was always upbeat, well informed, friendly, funny and happy to give me 15 minutes of his time no matter where he was.Since then his political positions, while still conservative, have shifted around quite a bit, which he freely admits.As he told the Atlantic in December 2019, “There’s no topic on which my views haven’t changed, because the country has changed so much. And what I have learned is that a lot of the things I believed were totally wrong, a lot of the information that I was basing my opinions on was wrong, or dishonest, false, even fraudulent in some cases. A lot of the things conservatives were saying at one time have been completely disproven.”The following interviews appear as they did in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, where every Saturday for about eight years my Q&A column featured smart, newsworthy and important Americans like Milton Friedman, George McGovern, Jane Jacobs, Molly Ivins, David McCullough and Ron Paul.
2003 — Tucker Carlson finds his niche
Everyone else who appears as a guest or a host in the MSNBC/
CNN/CNBC/FOX News talk-and-shout sector has written a book, so why not Tucker Carlson?
As a real writer, as an actual trained journalist who’s written for places like The New York Times, Forbes and New York magazine, he’s actually qualified. Carlson’s “Politicians, Partisans and Parasites,” while alliteratively titled, is not much of a test of his reportorial skills.
It weighs in at only 192 pages and it is basically a humorous quicky-memoir of how a young conservative staffer from The Weekly Standard with a two-pack-of-Camels-a-day habit became a TV talking pundit and co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire.” I talked to Carlson last week via telephone:
Q: Shouldn’t you be working for Fox TV by now?
A: Nooo! What? Fox is dying for more conservatives on their air? I don’t think so! You’d definitely have the “coals to Newcastle” problem there.
Q: Give us a 60-second sound bite about your book.
A: Mostly it’s a book about the experience of working in cable news, which is not a unique environment, but a pretty different one. It’s ad hoc. It’s a “45-seconds-to-airtime,-good-luck,-buddy” kind of thing.
There’s a lot of ad-libbing, and it’s risky in the sense that there’s no five-second delay. You screw up, and people see it. It’s an exciting and interesting environment filled with smart and, in some cases, deeply eccentric people — and nobody ever writes about what it’s like, so I figured I would.
Q: Speaking of “deeply eccentric,” tell us a little about James Carville. You’ve seen him in action on and off TV.
A: I think he’s a riot. I don’t hold him responsible for a lot of the things he says. I’m not even sure he’s aware he’s saying them a lot of the time. I admire James because he is one of the few people on television who will actually say what he thinks.
However outlandish or demented it might be, he’ll say it. I like that very much. He has the courage of his convictions, even if they’re horribly wrong, which they are.
Q: You’ve got some heavyweight blurbers on the back of your book — P.J. O’Rourke, Christopher Hitchens, (presidential candidate) Al Sharpton and William Kristol. Who did you have to pay the most?
A: (Laughs) Well, with Sharpton it was a pretty clear quid pro quo — my support for his blurb. You’ll also notice that he’s going to be rewarding me with the chairmanship of Amtrak if he wins. He cracks me up. I don’t think he’s in danger of becoming president.
I went to Africa last month with Sharpton and (Harvard prof) Cornell West and a bunch of guys from the Nation of Islam. I had a marvelous time, but one thing I learned is that Sharpton doesn’t hate white people. He just hates white liberals.
A: Oh, he hates them. He hates them so much that he’s planning on giving a prime-time speech at the Democratic convention in Boston next summer, thereby humiliating his party. That’s how much he hates them. So, we’ve got a lot in common.
Q: What about William Kristol. You worked for him for six years. What are your politics, and how do they differ from someone like Kristol?
A: They’re pretty closer to Kristol. I think of myself as an Episcopalian neo-con. I’m supportive of a vigorous foreign policy. I like Israel. And I’m conservative. I’m more socially conservative than I am economically conservative. I’m more upset about abortion than taxes.
It’s hard for me to believe that children who are viable are aborted in this country. You’d think people would be chaining themselves to buildings and lying down in the streets. You’d think the mall would be filled with protestors, and it’s not. I don’t really know why.
Q: At one point Robert Novak and other fellow conservatives deemed you too liberal to be on “Crossfire.” Did you prove that to be wrong?
A: I guess I’m liberal to the extent that I like Israel and I don’t hate people, by and large. I’m actually quite conservative. I’m just not that interested in the Republican Party. The fortunes of the party and my interests just don’t intersect that much.
I’m not a partisan. On a lot of issues I care about, the Republican Party consistently sells out. I don’t care one bit for the Republican Party. I vote for it most of the time. I’m an ideologue, not a partisan.
Q: “Crossfire” was always ripped by newspaper and magazine critics for all the yelling and shouting. But Michael Kinsley once said that “Crossfire” was the only place on TV where the guests were really grilled and not let off the hook.
A: See, I think the world has changed. Now there are a number of forums on TV that ask difficult questions. I don’t think we have a monopoly on that. The monopoly I think we have now is in literal balance. There is no single megalomaniacal host of “Crossfire” telling you the way the world is who goes unchallenged. There’s not a single phrase you utter on that show that isn’t challenged by a smart person trying to make you look stupid.
So that environment causes you to really think through everything you’re going to say. If I had my own show, it seems to me, you run the risk of indulging your own hobbyhorse theories about the world, and essentially there’s no one there to call “bull****” on you.
Q: You become Bill O’Reilly.
A: That’s kind of what I was trying to say without saying it. That’s exactly right. You become kind of a humorless solipsist. … On our show, one side may inherit a weaker position than the other on some nights. But always there are two sides evenly matched. I think out of that tension between the two sides, viewers get a better sense of what the debate is.
Q: What’s the worst part of being on a highly partisan debate show?
A: The worst part is when we don’t argue, but instead name-call. That’s not fun. It’s not good to watch. It’s very tiresome. It’s embarrassing. And I hate it when we do that.
Q: Do you miss writing as a full-time job.
A: Yeah, a lot. No, that’s not true. I don’t miss writing. Writing is torture, obviously. But I do miss being on the road. I miss going places and seeing people and hearing things I had never heard and meeting some people I didn’t know. I miss getting on airplanes and going to weird countries and seeing stuff.
Q: How long do you see yourself doing “Crossfire” or that kind of show.
A: I have no idea. I’ll probably wind up juggling in a street fair in Ottawa or something. I literally have no idea where I’m going to end up. I’ll do it till I get fired or I get bored, whatever comes first.
2004 — The Iowa Caucuses
The Iowa caucuses are hard upon us.
So who better to call for the latest inside-the-porkway poop on which Democrat is going to win than Tucker Carlson, the co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire”?
Carlson, a fine writer and straight-talker whose book “Politicians, Partisans and Parasites” recounts his crazy career in cable news, was in Los Angeles yesterday for a little R&R when he answered the Trib’s desperate call for professional analysis.
But he’ll be back in Iowa for Monday night’s too-close-to-call primary, where Howard Dean, John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich are still fighting it out before heading to frozen New Hampshire.
Q: Where did John Kerry’s lead come from all of the sudden? Has his wife Theresa been throwing her money around?
A: No, I don’t think that’s it all. He’s been dormant this whole time, waiting for what has happened, which is the Dean Meltdown.
Q: So you call it the “Dean Meltdown”?
A: No question.
Q: How does it manifest itself?
A: A Dean Meltdown is the point at which adult Democratic voters finally realize this man cannot be elected president.
Q: And all those pork farmers and meat-packers in Iowa have figured that out all of the sudden?
A: I think they have. People were excited by Dean, but all of the sudden they have caught hold of themselves and realized this is an incredibly irresponsible choice.
Q: Do these tracking polls, which now show Kerry has a slight lead, have any reliability at all?
A: No, they don’t. They’re not specifically predictive. One poll or a series of polls is not going to tell you who is going to win. However, taken together, they show a trend pretty clearly – and the trend is the collapse of the Dean campaign.
Q: Is it more Dean’s personality or the issues?
A: I think it’s both. Dean was a guilty pleasure for a lot of angry Democrats. His positions on foreign policy, his inability to leave a thought unexpressed, added up to the perception that this guy could just never be Commander in Chief.
Q: Now are we seeing the rise of Kerry or is he a blip?
A: I honestly don’t know. I bet on Kerry early. I put money on Kerry. I know Kerry. I thought he’s by far the most plausible opponent for a bunch of different reasons.
I mean, look: If the center of the Democratic critique of Bush’s foreign policy is that he has alienated the rest of the world, it kind of implies that you’re going to have to nominate someone else who can, like, I don’t know, make up with France. Right?
When you look at Howard Dean, is he really the guy who’s going to bring the French back? I don’t think so.
It’s going to be an election run on pretty serious issues, as far as I’m concerned. This election is going to turn on the question, “What is America’s place in the world?” It’s not going to be an election on prescription drugs or the silly transient issues that no one is going to remember a decade from now. It’s a big election, and Dean is an angry little man.
Q: Can you explain in English what a caucus is for those of us back here who don’t ever want to take part in one?
A: Despite having attended a number of them, I’m not sure I can get all the details right. But essentially it’s a bunch of Iowa voters gathering in, say, the basement of a school, and arguing – publicly — about who ought to be the nominee. Ultimately, I believe that each caucus place has to come some consensus.
Q: There are 1,900 of them.
A: Exactly. Each one has to pick somebody. The key difference between a primary and a caucus is that you can change your vote once you get there. You can come to a caucus site committed to, say, Kucinich, and leave having supported Dean.
Q: Was Dean right when he said that these caucuses were basically for political insiders and controlled by special interests, or was Time’s Joel Stein right when he said it was a boring “dorkfest” for people who get their kicks by doing jury duty?
A: It’s both. Because Stein’s right, Dean is also right. In other words, because it’s such a difficult, cumbersome process, the activists control it, because they are the only ones motivated to go. It’s so difficult, you have to have a very high level of intensity to participate. And the higher the level of your intensity, the crazier you’re likely to be.
Q: If Dean loses, will that mean the end of him?
Q: If you had to bet on a winner now for entire nomination, who would it be?
Q: Kerry’s obviously going to do better in Iowa, but does that give him legs for New Hampshire?
A: I think it does. On paper, Wes Clark is the best-situated to win the nomination, simply because Iowa and New Hampshire represent the nation a lot less than South Carolina does, and Wes Clark is a much more natural South Carolina candidate than John Kerry is.
However, there’s something really wrong with Wes Clark and anyone who’s spent, say, 20 minutes talking to him perceives that. I don’t think that’s percolated down to ordinary newspaper readers yet, but it will.
Q: And what is that “something wrong”?
A: I’m not sure. I flew across the country last night with a close friend of mine who is a big-time Democrat. We talked about it between Miami and L.A. the whole time almost: “What is it?”
I’m not sure we were able to put a finger on it, exactly, but there’s something missing. He’s too purely driven by ambition. He is ambition in search of an idea, really. He’s very smart. I’m sure he has a higher IQ than anybody else running. And he certainly has a more impressive resume in some ways. Have you talked to him?
A: I really recommend it. It’s absolutely worth going to one of his events. There’s something absolutely wrong with him. He does not hear questions. He will not deviate from what he’s trying to say. It’s bizarre. He’s a pod person! I can’t explain it.
I like almost everyone who’s running for president. I know them all. Most of them are likable persons. They’re career politicians. They didn’t get there by being unlikable, right?
Carol Mosley Braun – delightful. Whatever else she is, and she’s a lot of other things, she’s totally charming. Most of them are that way. Dick Gephardt is a pretty nice guy. John Kerry — good guy. There’s something wrong with Wes Clark.
Q: That’s scary.
A: It is. I’m not kidding! The hair on my arms stands up every time I deal with him. He was at CNN, so I’ve dealt with him a lot. It’s very strange. That’s not decisive. A lot of weird people have been elected president through the years. But he’s too weird.
2005 — Tucker Carlson talks
Tucker Carlson’s new 9 p.m. MSNBC talk show, “The Situation with Tucker Carlson,” is only a month old, but it already has been trashed by The New York Times.
The Times’ TV critic, who obviously didn’t appreciate “The Situation’s” fast-and-furious pace or the illiberal politics of its libertarian-leaning conservative host, called for the show to be canceled after two weeks.
More objective viewers, however, would give Carlson credit for developing a smart, politically balanced and often funny hour of civilized TV debate and commentary on the big news and issues of the day.
I talked to the affable former co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire” by telephone on Wednesday from his MSNBC offices in Secaucus, N.J.:
Q: Why should we watch your new show as opposed to the other cable news/talk/shout shows?
A: It’s more interesting, funnier and probably more informative.
Q: Is it too good-natured?
A: Is it too good-naturedâ¢ Is it not nasty enoughâ¢ (laughs) It’s just not nasty enoughâ¢ It’s just not unpleasant enoughâ¢ Yeah. It’s one of our major problems.
Q: How do you define your politics?
A: I would say probably closer to Pat Buchanan than anyone else. I would say I am a traditional conservative. I am completely opposed to the war in Iraq.
Q: You were for the war until you went to Iraq. Then you came back enraged.
A: I was enraged because it sort of brought me back to first principles — my own. And it reminded me that the only good reason to go to war is in self-defense — or to protect the physical integrity of your country. Look, I have grave concerns about government’s ability to do things well. I don’t trust the post office to deliver the mail and all of a sudden you get conservatives trusting government to create a brand new society in a place that has remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Q: Talk about social engineering. I thought conservatives were supposed to be against that stuff.
A: Exactly right! The idea that I get called “liberal.” I can’t think of a subject on which I’m liberal. … I’m much more libertarian on drugs than maybe some conservatives. I’m not for the death penalty. It makes me uncomfortable to give the government authority to kill people, except in self-defense, because I think that power has been misused. I’m adamantly against abortion. I don’t see why people say I’m liberal or a moderate. I don’t feel that way at all. People assume that President Bush speaks for all conservatives. That’s absurd.
Q: Who would you like to see be nominated to fill the Supreme Court vacancy?
A: (Antonin) Scalia, by far, is my favorite justice — so someone like Scalia. The president said that the nominee’s opinion on Roe v. Wade will have no bearing or won’t be the deciding factor. I don’t know why not. It’s wrong. It’s outdated. It’s undemocratic to have the Supreme Court decide for every state what their abortion policies ought to be. I’d like to see a genuine conservative get the job. The president is under all this pressure from the right to appoint someone other than (Attorney General) Al Gonzales and I’m glad.
Q: Tuesday night on your show you sided with Moammar Gadhafi on Africa’s permanent poverty problem.
A: Yeah. I did side with Gadhafi on Africa. Africa has been hurt rather than helped by handouts from the West. You lose your dignity when you live on charity. Objectively, Africa is, by almost every measure, worse off now than it was in 1960. So how has independence helped ordinary Africansâ¢ It hasn’t. I think it’s basically a welfare continent with some exceptions — Nigeria, South Africa, maybe Botswana. Most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are very poor and heavily dependent on Western aid, and that’s bad. One of Gadhafi’s points was “Stop begging handouts from the West,” and I think he’s absolutely right. And his other point — that aid is bad because it comes coupled with requirements that you liberalize your government — I disagree with. The problem with Africa is bad leadership, obviously. It’s not the West. It’s not white people. It’s African leaders — and they’re terrible.
Q: Now, the Valerie Plame CIA case. Judith Miller of The New York Times went to jail to protect her source. But Matt Cooper of Time is going to testify before the grand jury, and Time turned over his notes in the first place. Is this a dangerous capitulation by journalism?
A: I think it’s scary. Apparently, Matt Cooper was released by his source to name him to the grand jury. That’s fair. But I think the whole thing is insane. This is an example of why an independent counsel is a scary thing. … I think the whole thing is scary and overblown. If I were Judith Miller, I would have split for Paraguay. I wouldn’t hang around and go to jail. I don’t think you have a reason to abide by unjust laws.
Q: How did the liberals at PBS treat you during the year you had the “Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered” showâ¢
A: They were really nice to me. They were always really nice to me. Nobody ever told me what to say or what to think. They were appalled by my opinions sometimes, but they didn’t say much.
Q: How do you gauge the conservative-liberal balance or imbalance at PBS?
A: Well, it’s overwhelmingly liberal, obviously. The measure that matters to me is, “Do they let me say what I want to say?” And they did.
Q: What’s it going to take, ratings-wise, for MSNBC to keep you around?
A: I have no idea. I haven’t felt any ratings pressure at all. I think they understand the show has rolled out at the beginning of the summer. They’ve had all sorts of different kinds of programming in that 9 o’clock spot for a long time. They understand that it’s going to take time for people to find the show, and they seem patient enough to wait for that. And I’m grateful.
2008 — Democrats have no excuses
Known for his nonpartisanship, he told the Trib in 2005 that his politics “were probably closer to Pat Buchanan than anyone else.” Though he has strong libertarian leanings and became a strong opponent of the war in Iraq, he calls himself a “traditional conservative.”To find out what he’s been doing and get his take on the McCain-Obama race, I telephoned Carlson Thursday at his office in Washington:
Q: We’ve heard that you’ve professed your love for Sarah Palin but has she saved the Republicans from certain defeat in November?
A: No. But she appears at this point to have made possible a victory. Put it this way: It would be shocking if any Republican won this year but she clearly has helped.
Q: Do you know anything about her or her politics that everyone else in North America hasn’t heard already at least 10 times?
A: One of the reasons I love her is I know so little about her.
Q: Do you plan on going to Alaska to check out her background or go through her garbage or whatever?
A: I’m trying to figure out how to bring my fly rod and get up there, yeah. It’s salmon season. You know what I’d like to doâ¢ I’d love to do a piece where I follow her footsteps in fishing — where I fish in every spot she’s fished in.
Q: Last December you wrote a nice on-the-road piece on Ron Paul for The New Republic. Do you think you’ll have a chance to do anything like that on Sarah Palin?
A: I probably couldn’t get within three counties of Sarah Palin now. It’s funny. Two weeks ago you could have gone out to dinner at Sarah Palin’s house. But now I think I’d probably be tasered if I got within 100 yards of her.
Q: Palin seems to have really — what’s the clicheâ¢ — “resonated” with Western Pennsylvanians, who are socially conservative Reagan Democrats who are mainly white. People are really connecting with her and vice versa. She’s like someone from around here in some ways.
A: In a lot of ways. She’s pro-life, pro-gun, pro-union. It’s an unusual combination, and I can see why she fits in perfectly there.
Q: You’re not a partisan Republican?
Q: If you were, what would you be most worried about Palin. Obviously questions about her experience are out there.
A: If the press is really going after you. If you’ve got 3,000 people, each hoping to make a career based on tripping you up, you’re going to be tripped. If you’re talking in public a lot, and people are gunning for you, it’s inevitable that you’ll make some grave error.
Q: Do you have any sense that the Obama juggernaut, if in fact there was one, is starting to lose its wheels?
A: Definitely, they were caught off guard (by the Palin choice). They’re still running against Hillary Clinton. I’m not attacking them. I understand why. But they were taken completely off guard by this. They don’t know how to respond. This was news to the press because obviously most reporters in Washington are for Barack Obama, I would say. There are probably only three who aren’t.
But it turns out not everybody in the country is an Obama fanatic, and yet a lot of Republicans didn’t like McCain. Palin made it possible for Republicans to like McCain again. So all of a sudden you see this surge in support for the McCain ticket because of Palin and the Obama people just didn’t know how to respond to it.
Q: You were an emcee at the Ron Paul rally in Minneapolis. Does this mean your libertarian streak is getting deeper or wider?
A: No. It’s remained constant lo these many years. Organized groups of libertarians — it’s such a big tent that it tends to allow some unfortunate fringe elements in.
Q: The 9/11 truth squads?
A: The “truthers,” yeah. I was repelled by them so I left midway through. I think Ron Paul is a completely sincere, interesting, thoughtful, decent guy. And I like him. I don’t agree with everything, but I agree with a lot of it and I think he’s a genuine guy.
But Jesse Ventura got up and started ranting about the United States government and how it’s likely responsible for 9/11 and it was an inside job, and I thought, “That’s disgusting.” I don’t want to be around that, so I left.
Q: Do you think Ron Paul’s campaign will have any effect at all on Republicans in the medium or long run in terms of economic policy or limited-government kind of thinking?
A: You’d hope so. You’d hope that someone would call Republicans back to their roots and remind them that it was once a party based on individual liberty and small government.
Q: Do you dare to predict how this Obama-McCain race will end?
A: Well, I’ll say this: If Democrats lose, they just need to think of a more profitable profession to get into. There’s no excuse for Democrats losing this election. None.
Q: Yet they seem to be doing their best.
A: They’re trying hard. If he had picked Hillary Clinton, this would not be a race.