Tucker Carlson has become such a fixture in the world of cable-television news that it’s easy to forget he began his journalistic career as a writer. And a very good one at that, as this wide-ranging and immensely entertaining selection of essays from the past three decades serves to demonstrate. Carlson’s easygoing, witty, and compulsively readable prose has appeared everywhere from The Weekly Standard (where he was on staff during the nineties) to the New York Times, the SpectatorForbes, New RepublicTalkGQEsquire, and Politico, which in January 2016 published Carlson’s astonishing and prophetic article titled “Donald Trump is Shocking, Vulgar, and Right.” That essay has been preserved for posterity in these pages, along with twenty-two other pieces, plus a bombshell of an introduction written expressly for the occasion. More of that in a moment.

The first response of many of today’s readers, particularly those who don’t like the tenor of Carlson’s generally right-populist politics or the preppy swagger and bubbly humor of his TV persona, will be to dismiss The Long Slide as an effort to cash in on the author’s current notoriety by recycling old material to make a buck. That was my assumption when I first opened this collection. 

But the book has an underlying unity, and a serious message. It evokes a bygone age, an era of magazine and newspaper journalism that seems golden in retrospect, and is now so completely gone that one must strain to imagine that it ever existed at all. The simple fact is that almost none of these essays could be published today, certainly not in the same venues: They are full of language and imagery and a certain brisk cheerfulness toward their subject matter that could not possibly pass muster with the Twittering mob of humorless and ignorant moralists who dictate the editorial policies of today’s elite journalism.

Carlson’s writing style reflects the influence of the New Journalists such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, who brought a jaunty, whiz-bang you-are-there narrative verve and high-spirited drama to the task of telling vividly detailed stories about unusual people and places, generally relating them in the first person. Carlson’s prose is not as spectacular as Wolfe’s or as thrillingly unhinged as Thompson’s. 

But it has its own virtues, being crystal clear, conversational, direct, and vigorous, never sending a lardy adjective to do the work of a well-chosen image, and never using gimmicky wild punctuation or stretched-out words to fortify a point. He’s a blue-blazer and button-down-collar guy, not a compulsive wearer of prim white suits or a wigged-out drug gourmand wearing a bucket hat and aviator glasses. But many of Carlson’s writings give the same sense of reporting as an unfolding adventure, a traveling road show revolving around the reactions and experiences of the author himself.

Carlson usually shows a certain fundamental affection for the people he writes about, even if he also ribs or mocks them in some ways. In particular, there is none of that ugly contempt for the “booboisie” and ordinary Americans that one finds, for example, in the pages of H. L. Mencken, and in a great deal of prestige journalism. Instead, he reserves his contempt for the well-heeled know-it-alls who genuinely deserve it. In that sense, the Carlson of these essays does not seem very different from the Carlson of today. He always has been a bit of a traitor to his class, and commendably so.

That provides another good reason for this book’s existence. There is a cottage industry of articles out there, no doubt drawing upon thousands of gossipy lunch conversations among employed and semi-employed members of journalism’s envious Hive, about the horrifying transformation that Carlson is alleged to have undergone. “Tucker Carlson’s transition,” says the speechwriter-comedian Jon Lovett, “from conservative serious-ish writer to blustery CNN guy to Daily Caller troll to race-baiting Fox News host is like ice core data on what led to this moment in our politics.” Or consider the words of Liz Lenz in the Columbia Journalism Review: “If we can figure out how an intelligent writer and conservative can go from writing National Magazine Award–nominated articles and being hailed by some of the best editors in the business, to shouting about immigrants on Fox News, perhaps we can understand what is happening to this country, or at least to journalism, in 2018.”

Both of these no-doubt-formidable analysts are on to something. Tucker Carlson is indeed a figure of real significance in the culture of today’s journalism. But not for the reasons they think. They might get further in their ruminations if they were willing to entertain the thought that it is not Carlson, but their own industry, that has changed almost beyond recognition; and that he is a brave outlier standing against a smug profession that routinely confers plaudits and prizes on itself for demonstrably false reporting and naked political advocacy.

Carlson’s topics here run the gamut. The first of the essays is a long, elaborate, and rollicking tale (originally published in that New Journalism redoubt, Esquire) about a 2003 trip to West Africa in the company of some Nation of Islam members, plus Cornel West and Al Sharpton, all of whom were seeking to stop the civil war in the nation of Liberia. If that sounds like a perfect concept for a certain kind of situation comedy—the rather plummy, very white, and bow-tied Carlson plunked down into and cooped up on an 11-hour Ghana Airlines flight with a group of black nationalists who couldn’t mediate their way out of a paper bag—you have the idea. Throw in Professor West delivering himself of earnest disquisitions about “the dialectic” and “paradigms” and the horrors of an “imperial imposition,” and a Chicago pastor railing against the deadly corrupting evils of such television fare as I Love Lucy, and we have a comic feast on our hands.

Yet the article is far more than mockery. Carlson always seeks to humanize, not demonize, his subjects. West comes off as a bit of a fool but not a fake. The NOI members are earnest believers in some very strange and disturbing things, but also terrific conversationalists, smart and informed and well-mannered. And perhaps the greatest surprise of all is how well Sharpton comes off. There is a certain residual decency that shines through, underneath all the bluster and manipulation. If you find that hard to believe, all I can say is that you need to read the essay. It won’t be a spoiler, though, for me to tell you in advance that the mission to Liberia failed.

Along with their humor, the essays excel in a certain kind of broad-brush portraiture. We see Ron Paul, the straight-arrow libertarian whose commitment to ideas is so intense that his aides must guard the absent-minded candidate against wandering into a gaggle of prostitutes in front of the cameras. We meet James Carville, the “populist plutocrat” and Democratic campaign consultant extraordinaire whom Carlson describes unsparingly, but then calls “one of my favorite people in the world . . . a genuinely wise man” whom he has consulted repeatedly for career advice.

There is an engrossing portrait of a driven John McCain campaigning for the Republican nomination for president in 2000: an endlessly complex and enigmatic bundle of contradictions—one minute a petty schemer, the next minute a soaring idealist, spontaneous to a fault, a witty devil-may-care quote-machine irresistible to journalists, but also a man whose high spirits and spurts of generosity and altruism would often give way to a darkness in his nature that led to regular eruptions of sheer destructiveness. 

A similarly subtle profile of George W. Bush as of September 1999 shows him as a remarkably open man, equipped with a brilliantly pungent sense of humor as well as a long memory for slights and grudges, whose main qualification for the White House was the fact that, unlike so many other maniacally aspirant politicians, the job of president appeared to be one that he could take or leave.

Not all of the portraits are of famous people. Carlson the writer resembles Wolfe in embracing the full spectrum of American eccentricity, and marveling at the strong and colorful oddities that a free society allows to exist. Carlson’s childhood fascination with dangerous toys and explosives led him to discover Joel Suprise of Appleton, Wisconsin, whose fascination with creating ever more powerful and elaborate potato cannons led him to start his own business, the Spudgun Technology Center, which still exists today. Two essays are devoted to “Derek Richardson,” a con-man beggar and identity thief whom Carlson tracked down after himself being the credulous victim of the man’s game. The second essay ends sadly, with the revelation of the failed life and parental disappointment behind the trajectory of this chronic deadbeat.

As this example suggests, not all of the essays are light and easy. There are serious and highly detailed accounts of the heavy use of private contractors in prosecuting Operation Iraqi Freedom, and on the persistent appeal of eugenics, though it now goes by such names as “genetic counseling” and “prenatal diagnosis.” But Carlson generally eschews the kind of moralizing and sermonizing that is required of our new media masters, preferring to show the spectacle to his readers, and leave it to them to decide what they think about it.

The introduction, however, takes a different tack. It is Carlson’s apologia for the book, and it is hard-hitting. He remarks upon the changed tone of journalism since the days when these essays were written. “In 1991, journalists were proud to be open-minded, and I was proud to become one. . . . Editors saw themselves as the guardians of free speech and unfettered inquiry. . . . Being despised was something you bragged about. It meant you were telling the truth.”

He then goes on to describe a portion of the long slide alluded to in his title, concentrating on the descent of the book trade. He tells the story of Simon & Schuster’s rapid decline, beginning with its 2017 cancellation under pressure of a book deal with gay-conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. The story culminates in an excruciatingly embarrassing dialogue between Carlson and two S&S executives who find themselves unable to explain the company’s decision to cancel Sen. Josh Hawley’s The Tyranny of Big Tech, while moving full steam ahead with Hunter Biden’s pseudo-book Beautiful Things—even as Biden was under active investigation by the Justice Department for his shady business dealings in China.

The only possible explanation for this asymmetry is that publishing today, like journalism, has become nakedly politicized. “It never occurred to me,” Carlson says, “that a story of mine might be killed, or rewritten into mush, because some executive thought I’d voted the wrong way. If small-minded partisans had been in charge, I never could have stayed in the business.” Now they are the ones in charge. “At this point, people with my opinions can’t [stay in the business]. They’ve been driven from traditional journalism.”

And there is the problem. Anyone serious-ishly interested in examining “ice core data” on the causes of journalism’s decline, and achieving a better understanding of “what is happening to this country,” need look no further than this story, along with the rest of the book. There the reader will find some sparkling examples of what a talented journalist once could do in a society freer than today’s. Perhaps the next generation will make use of them.

Wilfred McClay is professor of history at Hillsdale College, and author most recently of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.

https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2021/11/tucker-carlson-class-traitor

The Long Slide: Thirty Years in American Journalism