Acid-tongued political pundit Tucker Carlson has been at the forefront of conservative punditry since the late 1990s, chiefly as co-host of the long-running, but now defunct cable news shout-fest, "Crossfire" (CNN, 1982-2005). Prior to CNN, Carlson spent several years as a print journalist; he had a regular spot on the Weekly Standard and farmed out his services to Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times and Talk magazine. Sometimes criticized for his adolescent looks and obsession for bowties (aggressive stripes are favored on "down" days), Carlson has more often been accused of contributing to the rapidly declining discourse that makes for cable news; instead of educating or enlightening audiences, Carlson-along with "Crossfire" cohorts Paul Begala, Robert Novak and James Carville-has been more likely to hurl cheap invective than to engage in meaningful debate.
Born in San Francisco, CA, Carlson went to St. George's School in prestigious Newport, RI and later attended Trinity College in Hartford, CT, but left without a degree. Meanwhile, Carlson spent his youth steeped in media and politics: his father, Richard Carlson, was a news anchorman in Los Angeles and San Diego, Director of Voice of America in Europe, President and CEO of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting and ambassador to the Seychelles islands. Influenced by such luminaries as George Orwell and Hunter Thompson (particularly the latter's penchant for chemical enlightenment), Carlson set out to become a journalist. His first assignment was for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, AK; then he joined the conservative Weekly Standard as a staff writer in Washington, D.C.
In early 2000, Carlson was asked by a friend at CNN to join "The Spin Room," wherein he sparred with political southpaw Bill Press on issues of the day. Heralded by one critic as "the worst show in the history of CNN," the hour-long gabber allowed Carlson the opportunity to hone his television chops on the fly. While most cable shows have always been cheap to produce, accountants at CNN neglected even the basic accoutrements for "The Spin Zone." So sparse was the set that viewers began contributing furnishings, decorations and even food, which Press ate on the air. Meanwhile, content for the show became increasingly bizarre-reciting bad p try, talking at length about Canadian viewers or pondering whether or not there was enough sex in politics became the norm on the free-form program. The show was cancelled less than a year after its first broadcast.
Carlson, however, remained at CNN. Just months after leaving "The Spin Room," he joined the long-running shout-'em-up, "Crossfire." Originally an hour-long on primetime, the show was moved to late afternoons and cut to a half-hour. Ratings, of course, were to blame. While most days he enjoyed hurling snappy insults or lavish praise on guests-depending on where they stood on the issues-Carlson did occasionally receive his comeuppance. When Hilary Clinton's autobiography, Living History, was released, Carlson refused to believe it would sell a million copies, saying he would eat his sh and bowtie if it did. Just weeks later, when the book passed the million mark, a gracious Clinton arrived on the show with a cake shaped like a sh . She then chided Carlson to start with the heel. In a more heated incident, Comedy Central's "Daily Show" anchor Jon Stewart (whose Emmy-winning comedic spin on the news had increasingly become many viewers primary source of information) spent his allotted time blasting Begala and Carlson for "political hackery" and claiming "Crossfire" was "hurting America." A miffed Carlson carped about Stewart's friendly interview with presidential nominee John Kerry and asked if he enjoyed lecturing people in their homes. Undeterred, Stewart continued his line of attack and ended the segment by calling Carlson "a dick."
Despite criticisms from both the left and the right, Carlson's views have not been easily pigeonholed. While consistently conservative, he has demonstrated a strong independent streak, eschewing demagogy for-according to him-honest debate. He has even criticized wonks and politicians in his own party, most notably Grover Norquist-president of the conservative lobby group Americans for Tax Reform-who Carlson accused of being an opportunist for opposing the military regime of Seychelles, then later becoming a paid lobbyist for its government. In return, he was rebuked for neglecting to mention his father's ambassadorship to the island nation; Carlson shrugged off the rebuttal as inconsequential. In 1999, he raised the hackles of Karen Hughes-political strategist for George W. Bush-after writing an unflattering profile of the would-be president for Talk magazine. The article mentioned Bush's use of foul language behind the scenes and his open mocking of Karla Faye Tucker-the first woman executed in Texas (Bush pursed his lips and mimicked her plea for clemency, which he denied as governor.) Hughes later claimed that Bush never used foul language, a strange assertion that prompted Tucker-who had tapes-to express loathing for the strategist.
In 2003, Carlson released his first book, Politics, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News. While mainly about his career in cable television, Carlson did stop to tell readers about people he admired (Arizona senator John McCain) and people he despised (Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly). He also detailed his close call with a potential sex scandal: In 2001, a woman from Louisville, Kentucky claimed that Carlson had raped her. The nervous pundit immediately hired lawyers and submitted himself to a lie detector test-the results confirmed that he had never met the woman nor ever been to Louisville, where the alleged crime took place. It was later revealed that the woman was mentally ill and the suit was dropped.
Back in the increasingly tumultuous and gimicky sea of cable news, Carlson received a clear indication that "Crossfire" was about to be canceled-pre-show snacks and baby wipes to remove makeup were taken away by the network. Then in 2005, the long-time CNN staple was finally canned. But Carlson was not without work. Earlier in 2004, he was brought aboard PBS for his own show, "Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered" (2004-2005). Featuring both one-on-one interviews and a round-table discussion with other panelists, "Unfiltered" was a more sober debate show than "Crossfire." Meanwhile, Carlson left CNN to join MSNBC for "The Situation with Tucker Carlson" (2005- ). Claiming to be "a fast-paced, no-holds-barred conversation," the show was set to air June 16, 2005-the same week PBS aired the last episode of "Unfiltered."
In mid-July 2006, "The Situation with Tucker Carlson" changed its name to the more simplified "Tucker." Prior to the name change, Carlson began feeling the heat from critics because of an on-air rant regarding Canadians, whom he called "stalkers" and "retarded cousins." The outrage-which seemed confined to the always rambunctious blogosphere-had a negligible effect on the host, who again used the disparaging remark in late 2006. Meanwhile, Carlson decided to show off his dance moves when he joined ten other celebrities-including Jerry Springer, Willa Ford and Emmitt Smith-for the third edition of "Dancing With the Stars" (ABC, 2004- ), a weekly dance competition that paired professional dancers with inexperienced stars, many of whom have two left feet. Carlson didn't last long-his Cha Cha, described by judge Bruno Tonioli as "an awful mess," saw the newscaster sitting in a chair for half his performance. Though he thoroughly enjoyed the experience, one that took him far out of his comfort zone, Carlson butchered the flirtatious dance, earning a poor score of 12 and an early exit after the first week.