I’m searching for a caricature of Tucker Carlson at the Palm, the restaurant near Dupont Circle wallpapered with the faces of the city’s famous and semi-famous, along with a bunch of other people who must be excellent tippers.
Carlson is firmly in the first category. He’s been on television almost constantly for more than a decade, hosting shows on CNN, PBS, and MSNBC, including one titled simply Tucker. He’s the guy with the bow tie who isn’t George Will. (Actually, he ditched the bow tie years ago, but the accessory is so fused with his identity now that it doesn’t matter whether it’s in his closet or around his neck.) These days he pops up on Fox News, expounding on this and that, deploying a “Come on!” or an “Absolutely!” as needed.
But where is he? There’s Margaret Carlson, the Bloomberg columnist. But no Tucker. Which is odd, considering he’s been a regular at the Palm for more than ten years—it’s not unusual for him to eat here a few times a week or even twice in a day. The interview for an early profile, published in New York magazine, took place at the Palm. Carlson was 31 then—he’s 43 now—and the article proclaimed him “the world’s most ascendant pundit.” This was at the dawn of George W. Bush’s reign, and Carlson was the wisecracking contrarian conservative with limited confidence in the newly arrived Texan. (“I don’t think he has any idea what’s coming,” Carlson said at the time.)
Maybe it has to do with a story Carlson once wrote about Tommy Jacomo, the Palm’s executive director. In the mostly flattering piece, Carlson mentioned Jacomo’s long-ago brush with the law—he was acquitted of charges that he’d helped arrange the sale of an ounce of cocaine—which embarrassed and angered him. Pissing people off accidentally is a hazard of journalism. The two later patched things up, and Carlson was again persona grata.
It was at the Palm that Carlson and Neil Patel—his college roommate and close friend and a former adviser to Dick Cheney—brainstormed the idea for the Daily Caller, a conservative news site in the mold of the liberal Huffington Post but with more firearms coverage and fewer nipple-slip slide shows. It launched in 2010 and in less than three years has become widely read, profitable, and reviled by the left, all of which must have been in the original PowerPoint.
Several members of the Palm’s waitstaff, killing time in the pre-lunch lull, assist in my hunt for Carlson’s likeness. Another waiter emerges with an explanation: “We had to take Tucker down because people kept drawing a mustache on him and writing dirty words. It was too much of a hassle.”
“Really?” I say, whipping out my notebook to record this choice morsel.
“No,” he says.
The joke about mustaches and dirty words feels true because—let’s just say it—Tucker Carlson is not America’s sweetheart. The word “dick” is a frequent descriptor, often modified by “total.” That was the epithet Jon Stewart directed at him during their infamous Crossfire showdown, an encounter that hastened the demise of the program and, temporarily at least, deflated the world’s most ascendant pundit.
Search Twitter and you’ll find Carlson deemed a hack, a loser, and a bunch of other names that magazines like this one don’t publish.
He is “like that kid in the 2nd grade you just HATED,” one tweet says. The editor at large of Salon, Joan Walsh, recently asserted that Carlson is the “poster boy for spoiled rich kids everywhere.” Wonkette called him a “snide trustfunder.” The always understated Matt Taibbi once wrote in the Buffalo Beast that you “would be hard-pressed to find an American who would not leap to his feet to cheer the sight of Tucker Carlson getting his teeth kicked down an alley.” Those warm feelings extend to the Daily Caller, which Gawker—who knows a thing or two about the bottom-feeding corners of the Web—declared “the worst website on the Internet.”
And in case you need another reason to despise Tucker Carlson, there’s this: The man couldn’t be happier.
Tucker Carlson was holding a hot dog in the fall of 1995 when his life changed. He was returning with his sad takeout lunch to his desk at a brand-new magazine in DC called the Weekly Standard, where he worked as a staff writer. He was in his mid-twenties. Carlson had graduated from Trinity College in Connecticut before getting his first journalism job, as an editorial writer at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He hadn’t planned on journalism as a career, even though his father had been a print and television journalist before becoming an executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Voice of America. Instead Carlson was convinced he would become a CIA agent or a teacher at a boarding school. After he failed to get into the CIA, reporting seemed like an exciting fallback.
In a hallway at the magazine, he ran into a publicist who asked if he knew anything about the O.J. Simpson trial. The truth was he knew what everyone else knew: The former football star and actor was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend. The publicist said a producer from 48 Hours needed someone on the show that night to discuss the trial. Carlson briefly considered admitting his ignorance, but he stopped himself.
This is how you become a talking head. There’s no background check or evaluation period, no test or pledge. One minute you’re some dude with a hot dog, and the next you’re inflicting your opinions on the masses. That is, assuming you possess the knack. Plenty of brilliant people turn wooden when the red tally light comes on. Not Tucker Carlson. He seems to belong on TV, as if he were just waiting to be asked, even though he’ll assure you, with apparent sincerity, that he doesn’t think he’s particularly good at it and doesn’t watch it. He’s fluid, lively, deft with the verbal parry. More important, he seems to know what he’s talking about.