Redefining Tucker

Tucker Carlson isn’t much of a dancer.

He admits as much and points out that he gained weight when he trained for ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” while others carved out chiseled bodies. “I gained about eight pounds of doughnuts,” he says. “What do I know about dancing? They put me up at a hotel in L.A. with great room service. I had never danced sober before. I had only danced at bar mitzvahs and weddings.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that Carlson, who doesn’t like to comb his hair, was voted off the show first. He didn’t want to do it and said no before he said yes. His wife, Susan, whom he married at 22, convinced him.

“What are you afraid of?” she had asked, goading him into it.

The former host of MSNBC’s “Tucker” is out of a job, at least as political talk show host. The network canceled his three-year-old show in March and replaced him with David Gregory’s “Road to the White House.” Carlson remains under contract with MSNBC as a campaign correspondent through the election.

He had suspected for months that his show was going to get killed. “It’s my job not to be in the dark,” he says. “I argued against it. Unfortunately, I’m not in control. They have been really fair. Very fair. I’m still employed by MSNBC and happy to be.”

Still, he considers himself jobless. “Tommy, I don’t have a job,” he says with a big, wide, laughing grin as he chats good-naturedly with The Palm’s maitre d’, Tommy Jacomo, on a crisp sunny afternoon last week.

His good spirits are part of Carlson family lore. In first grade, he remembers when his father, a Los Angeles anchor, got fired from ABC. Carlson senior learned of his firing from the show’s tailor — he went to have his suits made and the tailor said it wouldn’t be necessary.  

“My father thought it was a riot,” Carlson recalls. “I thought, ‘What kind of business is it that his tailor knows before he does what’s going to happen?’ That’s pretty weird, don’t you think?”

Carlson comes with quirks. For one thing, he never locks his car even though a woman once stalked him and another accused him of rape. The stalker wrote a letter to his daughter, then 6, that said, “Your father has to kill me or I’m going to kill you.”

But the unlocked car? He once found a guy asleep and wrapped in newspaper in the back seat of his Volvo station wagon. “I beat on the windows and made him get out,” he says.

He never watches himself on TV. Ever. He never reads stories about himself, especially not Wikipedia entries. Again — ever. The stories freak him out because strangers know details about his family, children and personal life.

Here comes another never. “I never change my [food] order,” he says; he is regular at The Palm, like his father, who is at the next table.  

Carlson habitually makes the sound of a revving motorcycle, apparently to show excitement. “Varooomm,” he says, shaking his fist, when his rare filet mignon arrives beautifully on a bed of large, woven onions. He revs up later when one decaf after another arrives at the table.

He’s all revved up but, once the election is over, has nowhere to go except home to Maisie and Meg, his spaniels.

He revels in this question-mark phase of his life because he knows that at 38, he’s not washed up.

But where will he go? “Broadway,” he jokes.

Carlson has taped a game show, soon to be released by CBS, that is already casting its second season. His ideal next step is to host “Jeopardy!” and a Sunday politics show. “I’m open to everything,” he says. “Something interesting always happens.”

Born and raised in the pristine coastal town of La Jolla, Calif., Carlson spent his youth at the beach surfing. “The problem with any beautiful town is you end up thinking it’s the center of the universe,” he says.

So he got out. He went to boarding school on the beaches of Middletown, R.I., at St. Georges, where he didn’t do well. “At 14 they shipped me off. I’m always up for an adventure,” he says. He met his future wife, the headmaster’s daughter, there on the first day of 10th grade. They now have four children.

Carlson went on to Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., but never graduated.

His stepmother is Patricia Caroline Swanson, of the Swanson frozen foods family; his maternal grandmother is Roberta Fulbright Swanson, sister of former Sen. J. William Fulbright. He has one brother, Buckley, a pollster.

He won’t discuss his relatives. At their mere mention, Carlson turns uncharacteristically vague with knitted eyebrows. “I don’t know,” he says curiously when asked to confirm family facts. “I don’t talk about my family. Anything about me is fine.”

Six years ago Carlson stopped drinking. “I enjoy my life intensely,” he says. “I’ve got four children. I just have such a happy life, it wasn’t adding anything. I work in journalism. There was real drinking. I wasn’t waking up outside or anything.”

But he once got so drunk in an airport that he ended up on a flight to Cleveland when he was headed to Dallas.

Carlson came to Washington in 1991 straight from his Bermuda honeymoon to Policy Review, a conservative magazine, and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His TV career began at CNN in 2000, where it blossomed at “Crossfire.” He writes for Esquire and The New Republic.

He says he likes most people, but there are a few he cannot stand — Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is one. Carlson recalls seeing Frank make a CNN producer cry by yelling at her and slapping away her hand when she tried to fix his collar before he went on air.

“I think that’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” says Carlson. “His comeback, it’s always you’re dumber than he is.”

Frank disputed Carlson’s account (saying he doesn’t remember it) and adds that Carlson once falsely accused him of hissing at someone. Carlson recalls no hissing accusation but doesn’t deny that it could happen.

Of Carlson, Frank says, “The times I’ve been on TV I didn’t find him to be an effective advocate of his viewpoint. I don’t think he does a good job. That’s what his problem is.”

Carlson has a fan club around town. “Tucker isn’t just one of the funniest people in Washington media, he’s one of the smartest,” says The New Republic’s Michael Crowley. “People who only know him from TV should read his excellent writing. He’s also just a good guy. I’ve never seen him put on airs off-camera. And his show was an all-too-rare pleasure — a cable TV venue where guests could actually form and complete more than a two-dimensional, 10-second thought.”

Lanny Davis, former counsel to President Bill Clinton (and a regular contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog), gushed, “I do a lot of shows. He is, without question, the fairest and most intelligent interviewer I’ve ever experienced on the conservative side.”

Davis appeared on Carlson’s final show. Beforehand, he asked if he could make a personal statement to him; Carlson said no. Davis did it anyway, thanking him for being fair, for allowing him to speak his opinion and for always being a gentleman. “Quite frankly, I think he teared up a little,” Davis said.

Others are more vague about Carlson’s qualities. “Isn’t he the dude with the bowtie?” asks Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.).

Carlson dropped the bowtie during what he says was a mid-life crisis in 2006. But he warns that it could return any moment. “I’m for following your whims,” he says. “When the desire to wear one returns, I’ll be ready.”

How many does he have? “Grains of sand on a beach,” he says. “A lot.”

Another of Carlson’s dislikes: Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, whom Carlson once referred to as a “mean-spirited, humorless, dishonest little creep.” Their mutual distaste stems back a decade to when Carlson wrote a New Republic story skewering Norquist for his lobbying in the Seychelles. Norquist said Carlson had failed to disclose that five years earlier he had tried to lobby Carlson’s father, then the Seychelles ambassador, against the islands’ military regime.

Norquist said at the time that Carlson had “damaged his journalistic integrity.”

Today, Carlson offers a different insult: “He’s just a finger-sniffer. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds sort of repulsive.”

Just then, Norquist passes our lunch table, but the antagonists do not acknowledge each other. (A later call to Norquist’s office had no response to Carlson’s remark.)

Carlson says he hates fakes. “If I seem like a d--k on TV, I really am. I never put on a pose. I’m too disorganized to pose.”

Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show,” appeared on “Crossfire” once and said to Carlson, “You’re as big a d--k on your show as you are on any show.”

Carlson suggests that Stewart, for his part, is “pompous and overrated but mostly pompous, preachy. He’s just pompous about politics and it’s amazing that college students treat him like an oracle.”

When Carlson concedes, “I can be a d--k sometimes,” he says it as though that’s occasionally rather a good thing to be.