In the annals of pundit-driven talk shows The Spin Room may have been one of the unique examples. Born in October 2000 to provide coverage of the Dick Cheney-Joe Lieberman vice-presidential debate, it was really an example of barely restrained anarchy. Cobbled together at the last minute with an improvised set and two hosts, rookie Tucker Carlson and veteran Bill Press, viewers rarely knew what they would get from night to night. Given free rein by CNN, who apparently didn’t monitor the show, Carlson and Press essentially created a guerrilla-style talk show that was fun, fresh and often chaotic.
Unfortunately the show, which one reviewer described as “the worst show in the history of CNN,” lasted less than one year before it was canceled and Carlson moved onto Crossfire with Press. It is those experiences and the behind the scenes stories that inform Carlson’s very enjoyable Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News (Warner Books, $24.95, 192 pages), a humorous and sometimes surprisingly honest look at the cable news business. Carlson proves that personalities drive politics and the political world is full of colorful and entertaining people — guests and hosts alike.
Talk shows like The Spin Room and Crossfire have a symbiotic and even incestuous relationship with their guests. As Carlson relates, people like Jesse Jackson and Gloria Allred are publicity hounds who need constant exposure and talk shows need a constant stream of guests. It’s a never ending cycle and explains why you see the same people saying the same things on different talk shows. The guests who succeed the best, at least according to Carlson, are ideologues who sincerely believe what they are saying. His pet peeve is hacks who merely mouth their party’s line.
The list of whom he admires or at least enjoys having as a guest might surprise some and it includes people like Al Sharpton (“smarter, funnier and much less self-righteous” than Jackson), James Traficant (“he was willing to appear on television drunk”), James Carville (“There was nothing phony about his outrageousness”) and John McCain (“for pure entertainment value” nobody beats him). He was considerably less enamored by people like Jackson, Jerry Falwell and several well-known politicians from either major party for whom he has few kind words for.
“Ideologues, by contrast, almost never make me mad. No matter how crackpot the opinion, I can respect a deeply held view. I may not believe that the earth is flat, but if you sincerely do, I won’t hate you for it. We’ve had a lot of true believers on Crossfire. I don’t think I have yelled at one. Secretly, I admire many of them.”
Of course, without something to discuss there would be little point in talk shows and the last couple of years have been a bounty of riches for the punditry. Carlson’s invitation into the world of cable news came thanks to his work on the O.J. Simpson trial while with the Weekly Standard, a warm-up for what was yet to come. The Lewinsky saga and the 2000 presidential election were all you can eat banquets for people like Carlson and they spawn a number of funny anecdotes with highlights that include campaigning with McCain and some bizarre interviews with Monica Lewinsky’s high school sex therapist. Carlson even recounts his own near scandal with a woman who had accused him of rape.
Like the average talk show Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites won’t be mistaken for thoughtful and deliberate discussion of the issues and the people behind them nor is it meant to be. Carlson set out to write an entertaining book and it reads as if he were there beside you telling you the stories firsthand. As a journalist Carlson has always believed you get the best stories by simply shutting up and let people talk. With his first book Carlson has proved that he’s as good of a subject as he is an interviewer.
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