Pundit Watch: Tucker Carlson

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Tucker Carlson is sort of the Paris Hilton of political punditry: he's famous for just being famous. Which is enough, it needs be said, to have your own show for a near three-year run on MSNBC. But then, Paris had The Simple Life, too.

Life with Tucker Carlson isn't so simple. He has more credentials than many of his conservative equals, having legitimate journalism chops: he was on the editorial staff of the conservative journal Policy Review, and later worked as a reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (a name that shouldn't fool anyone as to its leanings by virtue of its title). He went from there to television—specifically PBS—where he co-hosted The Spin Room. That gig led Carlson to CNN (though he hung around PBS until 2005, as well), and directly to Crossfire. Not a bad pedigree, given the comparatives in his field.

The thing about Tucker Carlson, though, is that despite his résumé, he's not a journalist. He, like many who subscribe to the shock-jock, sound-byte mentality of political discourse, is a performer. Or at least that's how he seems to approach the majority of his commentary and debate in the recent past. For example, on the now-legendary John Stewart episode of Crossfire in July 2004 (which was examined from co-host Paul Begala's perspective in this section last month), John Stewart made an unfortunate—and frankly childish—statement. This was the exchange:

Carlson: I think you're more fun on your own show. Stewart: You know what…you're as big a dick on your show as you are on any show. Carlson: (laughing while cutting to break) Now you're getting into it! I like that!

Two things are possible from this exchange. First, that Carlson was feeling under the gun, and desperately trying to make what was turning into a bloodbath of a skewering by Stewart into something more under his control. So he tried to laugh it off, and suggest that it was all a game in which both of them were participating—even though Stewart had made it abundantly clear that he wasn't playing along with anything. Second, that Carlson actually believed that Crossfire was a contest of sorts, and that being loudest and most convincing was the winning condition. Instead of debate leading to actual development of ideas, explanations of platforms and systems of belief, rational political discussion—it was just a match to see who could come up with the best zingers to beat the opposition, damn the truth or the consequences. It's possible—even likely—that both possibilities are true.

That's not to say that Tucker Carlson is a conservative shill. On the contrary, Carlson has been a George W. Bush critic for some time now, including all the way back in 1999, in the lead-up to the national election. Carlson wrote an article claiming that Bush "cursed like a sailor" and spoke harshly and insensitively about the upcoming execution of Karla Faye Tucker. He's broken with conservatives on other issues, too—most notably the war in Iraq, though he initially supported it. The list goes on.

And that list—those things that don't neatly fit into the common criticisms of other conservative pundits—are perhaps what keep Tucker Carlson more above the fray than the rest. Carlson still has his detractors, and deserves them, but he's also proven to be more adaptable and willing to stand against the current than some would credit him. These days, Carlson remains at MSNBC as "Senior Campaign Correspondent," though his eponymous program was canceled in mid-March of 2008.

The thing that most people know about Tucker Carlson is this: he's the guy that wears the bow-ties. But even that isn't true anymore—he gave them up as his trademark almost two years ago. So even if it is all political theater, Tucker Carlson from neckwear to newschannel still has the ability to surprise some people. Which, admittedly, is something of which Paris Hilton is utterly incapable. -- Teague Bohlen

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