We Hardly Knew Ye
Tucker Carlson Has Become the Right’s Jon Stewart—but That’s Not a Compliment
Long ago Carlson offered a refreshing voice and said some unexpected things. Now he’s just providing cover for Trump.
The turnover on the Fox News Channel over the last year brought about changes nobody saw coming. In a period spanning a mere seven months, three long-time Fox News hosts departed the network. Beginning with Greta Van Susteren last September, Megyn Kelly this past January, and most recently Bill O’Reilly, who in April was told not to return following the release of information showing O’Reilly had settled several sexual harassment lawsuits at Fox News for $13 million.
Tucker Carlson was the beneficiary of each departure. Brit Hume filled in for Greta temporarily, but the permanent position went to Carlson in November with a new show, Tucker Carlson Tonight airing at 7 p.m. EST. When Kelly departed in January for NBC, Carlson’s show moved to the 9 p.m. time slot and immediately topped Kelly’s ratings. With the departure of O’Reilly, Carlson completed his move to his current spot, ending up in the coveted 8 p.m. time slot where he’ll likely continue to have stellar ratings. For the most part, I wish Carlson all outstanding success. If you’ve followed his career, it’s obvious he’s worked very hard over the last 20 years to reach this level.
Unfortunately, while I was amused at first by Carlson’s antics with various guests, the schtick grew old very fast, to the point I can’t even bring myself to watch clips of his show posted online.
It’s disappointing, as I’ve always been a fan of Carlson’s work going back to his beginning as a writer for The Weekly Standard in 1995. My appreciation for his work grew out of the fact we’re the same age (he is a year older), and at the time, the political commentary scene was dominated by those 40 and over. Carlson is a Generation X'er, like me, and in the late 90s most people our age were trying to start dot-com businesses, so it was refreshing to see the work of a 26-year-old in the pages of a newly launched, politically conservative magazine.
Over time, Carlson’s writing extended to outlets such as The Atlantic, Talk Magazine, Esquire and New York Magazine, where he had a column in the early 2000s. Carlson’s style was refreshing in the world of political commentary. Acerbic but not nasty. Witty but not corny. Unapologetic but not condescending. Carlson paved the way for a wave of Generation X writers that would dominate the scene, especially in light of the Clinton/Lewinsky revelations and the explosion of the internet as a means of political news and commentary consumption.
During the 1990s, anti-Clinton fever was a great marketing tool for selling books by political pundits. Rush Limbaugh zoomed to the top of the best-seller list. The environment was ripe for such books, and everybody from Cal Thomas to Ralph Reed was writing them. Unfortunately, the problem with all of the books after Limbaugh’s is they all stuck to the same script for the most part. “Liberals are horrible,” “Liberals are ruining the country,” “We’re at a crisis point,” “Only conservatism can save us.” There was nothing new in any similar books that followed, but with Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, the Lewinsky scandal, and impeachment looming, copies flew off the shelves.
In 2003, Carlson released his book, Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News. The book is a delight. It was nothing at all like the political books I’ve read. Carlson wrote warmly of people like James Carville and Bill Press. Carlson made clear he had no issues with ideologues, even if he disagreed with them. Ideologues, Carson wrote, weren’t concerned about their appearance or what they were saying because it’s what they believed. Partisans, on the other hand, he described as “mindless drones” who were more interested in the trappings of power than in making an argument for their point of view.
Carlson naturally pokes at liberals, feminists, environmentalists and others in the book, but not with the kind of nastiness you see with Ann Coulter or Michael Savage. He even handles a false charge of sexual assault with some self-deprecation instead of a sense of self-importance. Tucker’s guiding philosophy throughout is, “Be tough, be courageous, and be firm, but by all means be interesting.”
During Carlson’s time on CNN, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show appeared as a guest. It was an episode that lives in infamy as it elevated Jon Stewart’s profile when he slammed Carlson and co-host Paul Begala for doing nothing but engaging in “hackery.” At the same time, it also exposed Stewart’s built-in excuse for when he gets called out for this nonsense. Stewart enjoys a reputation as a thought leader in politics. But when criticized, he retreats into the excuse of, “Hey, I’m just a comedian!” Stewart managed to play both sides when Carlson pointed out Stewart asked softball questions of John Kerry. Stewart exploded and said, “You’re on CNN! The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls! What is wrong with you?”
Over the next 10 years, Stewart’s nightly show fueled the use of the words “destroy,” “annihilate,” and “eviscerate” on websites each morning. Jon “I’m Just A Comedian” Stewart routinely took on conservatives and Fox News by playing an out-of-context clip followed by Stewart staring pensively into the camera while tapping his pencil on the desk before launching into a tirade that’d have the live audience whooping and laughing. The next morning, websites, particularly the left-of-center variety took great delight in reporting how Stewart “savaged” Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly or an office holder from the Republican Party.
As we later learned, Stewart was somewhat of the hack he supposedly detested. Stewart routinely visited President Obama at the White House and aides worked with Daily Show writers to make sure their point of view was well-represented. Stewart’s tenure didn’t elevate political discourse, but unfortunately, it left conservatives wanting their version of the same. After all, why have a discussion when it’s better to “destroy” somebody?
When Fox News named Carlson the permanent host to take over for Greta Van Susteren following her departure, I had high hopes. It wasn’t until Carlson took over Megyn Kelly’s time slot that I had a chance to watch the show. Admittedly, I enjoyed watching Carlson take on a guest right out of the chute and take down their point of view at first. Some of the interviews were flat out bizarre such as the one he conducted with Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald, and others were somewhat funny.
As one would expect following a show, social media and conservative websites were ablaze with variations of “Tucker destroys _____” and “Carlson demolishes _______.” If conservatives desired a version of Jon Stewart, they got one. The problem is, the format got tedious—and fast. After several weeks, I stopped watching. Once you get past who the guest is and why they’re appearing, it follows the same formula. Carlson looks quizzically into the camera, scolds the guest for not answering the specific question he posed and routinely laughs. By the end, while there may be a brief moment of triumphalism, you walk away realizing you didn’t learn anything.
In short, Tucker Carlson is now the partisan he once decried. His mission at this point is more about giving cover to President Trump than advancing conservatism.
It’s hard to argue with success. Carlson has stellar ratings, so a change in format is highly unlikely. Carlson’s show will undoubtedly be successful over time, and many conservatives will happily report on the latest victim of a Tucker Carlson “annihilation.” Unfortunately, all it does is add to the long list of cable television shows where communication between opposing ideologies features a whole lot of yelling and snark, but little in the way of discussion.