Tucker Carlson was in the back seat of a black car, heading to Talk magazine's glittering Statue of Liberty party, when his cell phone rang. It was an angry campaign aide to George W. Bush, accusing him of betraying the governor in a profile he wrote for Tina Brown's magazine.
Carlson had gushed over Bush, but he had also quoted Bush as freely using the F-word, and the campaign was challenging the account.
"It sounds disingenuous and naive, but my feelings were hurt," Carlson says. "That's totally beneath me. Why would I make up a quote? It's outrageous."
Moments later, he adds with a grin: "I don't know what's wrong with saying the F-word. It's one of my favorite words."
A combative, bow-tied conservative who just turned 30, Carlson seems to have raced up the Washington punditry ladder without breaking a sweat. He is a four-year veteran of the Weekly Standard, a regular panelist on CNN and now the chief political writer for Brown's much-hyped new magazine. He ranges widely on the journalistic keyboard, from high-concept ridicule of global warming to the first down-and-dirty interview with Monica Lewinsky's sex therapist.
While he cheerfully pleads guilty to a substantial ego--"I'm an arrogant [expletive]," he says--Carlson also exudes an unmistakable sense of California cool. And that can be disarming.
"He's great at digging up stuff and great at getting people to confide in him and tell him things they later wish they hadn't," says Bill Kristol, the Standard's editor. "He's engaging and boyish, and people take a liking to him."
But Carlson also plays the role of good-natured hit man. In 1996, he wrote in the Standard that Ross Perot "has made a compelling case that he is unbalanced. . . . Ross Perot isn't just kooky, he's dictatorial and duplicitous." He slapped around James Carville for "potentially destructive demagoguery." And he eviscerated Al Gore at length as "the biggest phony in the White House."
"I can be nasty, and most of the time it's a good thing to be nasty," Carlson boasts in his small Standard office, sporting a burgundy bow tie beneath his thick shock of brown hair. "A lot of people deserve it. But it's a bad thing to be cutting or cruel for no reason."
He was anything but nasty toward Bush, whom Carlson sees as "a mellow, comfortable, fun-to-have-a-beer-with kind of guy." But in his Talk profile, Carlson described the Texas governor as mocking a plea for clemency from Karla Faye Tucker, a double murderer who was executed on Bush's watch last year. The apparent insensitivity, and the profanity, prompted a withering attack on Bush by columnist George Will.
"Mr. Carlson misread, mischaracterized me," Bush responded, while still calling him "a good reporter." Perhaps Bush believed that Carlson would protect him, would edit out the four-letter words and let the joke slide, but Carlson says it was all on the record.
Liberals lapped it up. The New Republic praised Carlson's "gumption."
"His piece about Bush, intentionally or unintentionally, is one of the most revealing things written about the guy," says Democratic consultant Robert Shrum. "Tucker's description is so vivid."
Carlson professes amazement at the reaction: "I thought I'd be ragged for writing a puffy piece. My wife said people are going to think you're hunting for a job in the Bush campaign."
Kristol, for one, isn't surprised. "Some Republicans and conservatives think he's a fellow conservative and he'll give them a break," he says. "Tucker, to his credit, reports it like it is."
One friend describes Carlson as a "young fogey," and the description isn't far off the mark.
He is by all accounts devoted to his wife, Susie, a former religion teacher, and their three children. He goes to church every Sunday. He's an amateur carpenter who is trying to fix up their century-old house in Alexandria. He gardens. He unloads groceries from the boat at their summer place on a Maine island. His main vices are booze and cigarettes.
"He read adult books when he was 6 and 7 years old," says his father, Richard Carlson. "He read 'War and Peace' when he was a little kid."
The elder Carlson has been a huge influence on his son's career. A former local television anchor in Los Angeles and San Diego, he rose to become director of the Voice of America during the Reagan and Bush administrations. When Tucker was growing up in La Jolla, the family's regular dinner guests included San Diego Mayor (and future governor) Pete Wilson, San Diego Union-Tribune editor Gerald Warren and Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.
By his own account, Carlson was a lousy student, and his parents shipped him off to a Rhode Island boarding school, where he started dating the headmaster's daughter (who became his wife). He also became head of the debating society. After one session, Carlson strode to the edge of the stage and challenged any member of the faculty to debate him on any subject. No one took the bait.
"He wound his arrogance down a little after that," Dick Carlson says.
After graduating from Hartford's Trinity College with a history degree in 1991, Carlson wanted to follow in his father's footsteps but, with his D-plus average, "I never thought I'd get hired." Still, he landed a writing job on the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review magazine.
"I was impressed by the quality of his mind," says former Review editor Adam Meyerson. "We talked about C.S. Lewis, Whittaker Chambers, Nicaragua, and he had a contagious enthusiasm about ideas. . . . He had a real nose for news and a crack prose style."
Next it was off to Little Rock, where Carlson became an editorial writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1993, churning out pieces attacking the new president. "I'm not a Clinton hater," he says. "I'm a Clinton disliker."
Carlson moved to the Washington area the following year to write a book about law enforcement, with a grant from the conservative Bradley Foundation. He found a publisher for the book, which argued that police should be given greater power in fighting crime. But there was a problem.
"I had this crisis when I realized I didn't agree with the essential thesis of the book," Carlson says. "I decided my thesis was repugnant." He pulled the plug on the project.
When Rupert Murdoch was launching the Standard in 1995, Carlson says, "I called everyone I ever met and begged each one of them to beg Kristol to hire me." Carlson says he was concerned that he'd "be written off as a wing nut" if he went to the more stridently conservative American Spectator.
But the media culture was changing, and Carlson believed there was "less stigma" attached to ideological journalism.
"The wonderful thing is we're allowed to say what we think," Carlson explains. "Your stories can be more true, more honest, more direct. If a person at a press conference says something I think is ludicrous, I get to say it's ludicrous. . . . You try not to distort the truth because someone you're profiling you think is on the right side of abortion or trade or any other issue. That would be dishonest."
As his star rose, assignments for George, Slate, Forbes FYI and the Wall Street Journal followed. Tina Brown called out of the blue to ask him to moonlight for her magazine. Carlson portrays himself as a Chauncey Gardner figure who just keeps stumbling into good fortune.
"He's ambitious without appearing ambitious," Dick Carlson says.
"Tucker's not one to be plagued with dark nights of the soul," says Matt Labash, his pal and Standard colleague. "He seems to bob along and that's part of his appeal, his perpetual chipperness. The guy can handle more workload than anybody I know."
Wedded to an unorthodox schedule, Carlson guzzles coffee and basically slacks off in the morning, comes downtown and does his reporting in the afternoon, and later puts his kids to bed and waits for his wife to fall asleep. At about 10:30, he retreats to a converted porch and types away until 3 or 4 a.m.
"I have a lot of trouble writing or doing anything unless the pressure is on," Carlson says. "If left to my own devices, I'd spend a lot of time playing with my kids and my dogs."
Carlson also likes to drink, particularly before plane trips, which make him nervous; he once got so soused he missed his flight to Dallas and accidentally boarded a jet to Cleveland.
Carlson had one misstep in 1997 when he wrote a New Republic piece attacking conservative activist Grover Norquist for his lobbying in the Seychelles. Carlson failed to disclose that his own father had been U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles five years earlier and that Norquist had unsuccessfully lobbied Richard Carlson against the islands' military regime. "He has damaged his journalistic credibility," Norquist said then. At a Spectator dinner, a drunken Carlson spilled a Bloody Mary on Norquist--right in front of a "60 Minutes" camera crew. (He bowed to pressure and sent Norquist a letter of apology.)
Carlson's relaxed glibness made him a natural for television chat shows, but he often forgot that real people were watching--such as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. After one stint on "The McLaughlin Group," he recalls, "the phone rings and it's Carol Browner, trying to tell me that what I said is wrong and otherwise acting like what I said is important. I was just shocked."
Carlson later landed a regular slot on CNN's "Late Edition" and recently tried out for Pat Buchanan's seat on "Crossfire," losing out to Mary Matalin. He says the network wanted someone better known--and a bit older.
He does a weekly "Squabbling Carlsons" segment with Time's Margaret Carlson, who calls her debating partner "delightful. The disappointment to CNN is we don't disagree as much as we could because we have a lot of common ground. He's very conservative, but he's not conservative in that doctrinaire way. He crosses over. You can be surprised."
Carlson views journalism like his favorite college pastime, hitchhiking: a ticket to meeting interesting people. And despite his multimedia commitments, he doesn't worry about spreading himself too thin--for now.
"If I begin pouring Wild Turkey on my Cap'n Crunch, that would be a sign," he says.
CAPTION: "I can be nasty, and most of the time it's a good thing to be nasty," says Tucker Carlson. "But it's a bad thing to be . . . cruel for no reason."
CAPTION: "I don't know what's wrong with saying the F-word. It's one of my favorite words," says Tucker Carlson with a grin.