“They’d need a forklift to get her on the ticket!”
Twenty-one years ago, that was Tucker Carlson’s response to my take on who I thought was likely to be the Democrats’ 2004 vice presidential candidate. I had been trying to be clever, to impress him. We were talking presidential politics—or I was, and he was patiently listening—and I had him to myself. I didn’t anticipate Tucker’s reply about the U.S. senator I suggested, but I should have. Almost everything I ever heard out of his mouth in the year that I worked for him was a frat-style joke.
Tucker’s abrupt dismissal from Fox News this week has me revisiting that year of my life. And the details emerging from a pending lawsuit over the toxic atmosphere on his production team tell me that what’s new is old. Over the last two decades, the jokes have moved from a female politician’s weight to, reportedly, debates about which one his staff would prefer to sleep with. In other words, little about the man’s sense of humor has changed.
Tucker’s forklift quip came as he drove me across town in his blue Audi from CNN’s D.C. bureau to the George Washington University to film the show that employed us both. From 2002 to 2003 I was a young research producer for Crossfire, which meant I was one of a small team in charge of on-air factual accuracy and content for the hosts: James Carville and Paul Begala “on the Left,” and Bob Novak and Tucker “on the Right.” With few exceptions, each nightly debate put one from each ideological corner into a full hour of exchange with each other and with newsworthy guests. (A representative for Tucker Carlson did not respond to a request for comment on this article.)
In the post-Crossfire years, Begala and Carville remained fixtures within the Washington punditry, and in 2009 Novak passed away. But Tucker moved on to become the most powerful conservative cultural figure on television, occupying Fox News’ 8 p.m. time slot until last Friday. In that role he was the most prominent peddler of the idea that Democrats (and, more generally, the political left) were plotting a long-term electoral strategy to disempower white Americans and supplant them with immigrants and people of color—a “great replacement” of one race by another.
With his return to prime-time during the Trump era, Tucker became notorious for overt anti-immigrant and often racist rhetoric. But this demagoguery didn’t sprout out of nowhere; it was present during the Crossfire years too, just as a sarcastic and even prank-like part of his future persona. Tucker (the Crossfire staff addressed all four hosts by their first names, at their insistence) was in his early 30s when I worked there, but while even then he was honing the same cynicism and faux outrage familiar to audiences now—alongside his uniquely performed look of practiced confusion—he also appeared to be having great fun.
Most of us at Crossfire were. James’ nickname for me (for reasons I never learned) was “fuck-stick.” Paul had a foul mouth too, as well as a quick temper, but was unceasingly loyal, down to the youngest production assistant. Bob was nearly as humorless off-air as on, but he clearly enjoyed telling younger staffers like me about his days covering Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Far from serious-minded debate, some of our best-rated shows were our silliest. When I left, the staff and hosts presented me with a T-shirt from Kentucky Fried Chicken, signed by all to commemorate our frequent segments on the merit or the horror (take your pick) of what was at the time a mild controversy around requiring fast-food companies to provide nutritional labels. The unspoken nickname for Sam Feist—the show’s producer, now CNN’s D.C. bureau chief—was the “corporate butt-boy.” Unspoken except by James, who coined the term and used it to Sam’s face.
Tucker was closer to my age than to Paul’s, and an entire generation younger than James and Bob. With the young staff, men or women, he was like the president of an Ivy League eating club, regaling the pledges like me with stories of smoking pot and throwing tennis balls at his dog on his off-days from the show. Filling us in on D.C. gossip—say, which married, prominent personality he claimed was sleeping with which young political reporter. Suggesting that columnist Maureen Dowd hated men because the actor Michael Douglas had once dated and then dumped her. This was a theory of Dowd’s writing also put forward by Rush Limbaugh—for all I know Tucker took it from Rush, but to my young (and, I have to acknowledge, starry-eyed) self, it was all Tucker being Tucker. In a city where hundreds of twentysomething staffers go to work every day for the prominent and would-be-famous, Tucker was a lot more fun and interesting to work around than the senators and members of Congress employing most of my friends.
And anyway, none of Tucker’s crassness was particularly a secret. Writing about Monica Lewinsky in his 2003 book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, Tucker described her as “nice enough, though whatever it was that Clinton saw in her remained invisible to me. I couldn’t imagine her wearing a thong. I couldn’t imagine wanting to see it.”
There was also the occasional ethnic barb, too. One regular guest on the show during the build-up to the Iraq war was a physically large scholar of Middle Eastern origin. Tucker’s response every time the bookers told him the man would be a guest that night was to ask who knew that hummus had so many calories.
This all translated onto the air too, where Tucker had an impish knack for putting his private jokes directly into the program. I once convinced him to tease an upcoming segment on the French resistance to the invasion of Iraq with a line from The Simpsons: “We are going to take a quick break: The Simpsons calls the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.’ … In a minute, more on the country that hates the U.S. all the time.”
More prescient was the way Tucker mixed those jokes with race. His favorite way to introduce one regular debate guest, the Rev. Al Sharpton, was as a “leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.” Sharpton at the time was sort of a B-team version of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and he had a past. During his regular Crossfire appearances, he was also in a legal dispute about media airings of old FBI videos showing him discussing a potential drug deal with an undercover agent. Tucker loved this, and loved having Sharpton on the air. Off the air, he would laugh about this line over and again as he wrote it into his segment introductions (Paul and Tucker wrote their own scripts, James and Bob largely did not). “He’s the perfect Democrat,” he would say, giggling. It wasn’t until Paul pulled me aside and chastised me for giggling too that I understood what was happening. As Paul put it, Tucker knew “exactly what he was doing” by insinuating that liberals are tied to Black, perhaps drug-linked, radicalism.
To be complete, I will say that Tucker was exceedingly kind to me personally. He sent us all handwritten Christmas cards for the two holidays I was at CNN, and in my case a bottle of Dom Perignon when I got engaged. After I left, he sent me a copy of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, which was at the time his favorite book. “Orwell was a great man,” he wrote to me. And even after I had gone, Tucker thanked me and other staff in the introduction to the Partisans book.
In that same book, Tucker described at length the role of producers like Feist who push hosts like himself into extreme positions. “A good producer,” he writes, “can smell nuance from a hundred yards … he knows when you’re starting to question the basic rightness of your case. That’s when he begins his pep talk. ‘Look,’ he’ll say calmly, ‘no one expects you to defend what [Oklahoma City bomber Timothy] McVeigh did … You’re just making the point that it’s not the government’s business how many blasting caps you buy or how much ammonium nitrate fertilizer you stockpile.’ ”
A substantial portion of Tucker’s TV persona has been derived from that kind of production. He found unparalleled success as a right-wing ideologue and that’s where he took his career. But that’s not to say it goes against his personal instincts. The McVeigh example may be extreme, but it’s a helpful insight into what Tucker became—and the Fox show he built around himself. I remember one Crossfire episode where we were trying to book a debate about drunk-driving laws, and one guest was the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Our producers had absolutely no trouble convincing Tucker to go hard against that MADD mom. He was genuinely offended by what he called the “moral blackmail” of grieving parents using their grief to guilt the rest of us into changing public policy. He, Tucker, didn’t do anything wrong, so why did the guest expect him to agree with her?
In the years since, it was exactly that pliable, televised ability to get him himself offended by the idea that he and others like him might be part of any problem that helped make him so dangerous. Consider his take on Ukraine earlier last spring: “It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, what is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”
Tucker was no philosopher. When I knew him, he disliked liberals as much as liberalism, but it was as much because he suspected that liberals just don’t have any fun as any particular objection to the left itself. He preferred conservatives mostly because he was white and he was wealthy—and the right happened to meet him at the places, like race and abortion, that he took for himself, rather than any special affinity for tenets or ideology. In Politicians, he describes his tobacco addiction not simply in personal terms but with the same impish resistance to being told what to do that he did for our MADD show or, more recently, with race: “Pro-health propaganda never once detracted from my enjoyment of tobacco.”
And that’s just it: Tucker made it fun to hate. He gave men permission to laugh at today’s version of his Sharpton jokes and his weight jokes and the idea of Maureen Dowd writing columns critical of Bill Clinton’s affairs because she had privately had her heart broken. What’s important in the Trump and post-Trump era is that Tucker said on-air now what he kept off-air then.
In those days his on-air persona was less overt: more of a televised bewilderment that anyone could possibly think racism was still a problem in contemporary America. It had yet to become the incendiary white nationalism of 2016 and beyond.
But the act Tucker honed since his Crossfire days was to make both what is right and wrong according to the worldview of white men seem so entirely obvious. Tucker stoked a conviction that white Americans need to mind with urgent clarity everything from the takeover of the country by people of color to massive overreach by an incompetent government.
This is the conspiracy, anger, and extremism behind “replacement.” What Tucker suggested every night is that they’re doing it right in front of our faces.
We should have listened to Jon Stewart. I left the show shortly before Stewart’s now-famous takedown of the Crossfire format and of Tucker in particular. But I met Stewart before I left, when I stood with two of the Crossfire bookers in the hallway of the D.C. bureau as they pleaded with him, after he appeared on another CNN show, to join Crossfire as a guest too.
Stewart’s primary complaint—and his reason for demurring as long as he did—was exactly what he said when he ultimately went on the air. Crossfire was “hurting America.” Tucker in particular. And the specific objection in that hallway had nothing to do with partisan politics but with our way of sensationalizing pain and glorifying loud dissent. As an example, Stewart pointed to a special we ran during the horror of the D.C. sniper killings. The special was called “Sniper on the loose: A Crossfire town meeting.” Stewart was right—once we put the word sniper alongside the show title without irony, the show had become sensationalism.
For that reason alone, Stewart said in the hallway, he would never appear on Crossfire. When he eventually relented, he all but destroyed that particular show simply by showing up in person to call it ridiculous. At the time, what Stewart was critiquing was the format and programming. But I think what he was onto was a fear that Tucker might just go forward, and if he did, he could succeed at bringing his deliberately villainous persona with him. If Tucker Carlson had never existed, the showrunner of a Netflix satire on boarding school brats or over-the-top media blowhards would have had to invent him. And then we’d all laugh the way we did at a President Meryl Streep.
Except, really, none of it is a joke.
What scares me now is not that the Tucker I knew was kind to his support staff, silly enough to choose the word “bowtie” as his computer password, irritable enough to complain about the smell of Bob Novak’s microwave popcorn, young enough to trade gossip with the even younger staff, and self-conscious enough to use rubber bands to keep his dress socks up under his khakis. Nor even that Tucker somehow morphed into an powerful right-wing nationalist whipping Americans into a fervor.
What scares me is that it’s not who Tucker is that matters. It’s what he made possible. At Crossfire, it was smaller stuff that crossed boundaries behind the scenes and pushed limits on-air. At Fox, the antics were crueler, the audience bigger, and the impact more consequential. It was Tucker doing what he always had: making money by telling millions of people what they wanted to hear and already believed. The only question now is: What comes next?