* Someone was gay, Murdoch was saying to a few friends — really, his wife’s friends — who had joined him at the patio table in St. Barts. Someone at Fox News, it seemed. But then with an abrupt segue it might seem that it was Ron DeSantis, who Murdoch was increasingly seeing as a powerful alternative to Trump, who was gay, or that someone was accusing the Florida governor of being gay. Someone at Fox — possibly Tucker Carlson — was saying that Trump was saying that DeSantis was gay. The connections here, even making a supreme effort to follow the low voice and interior mumble, were not necessarily clear.
“Rupert, why are you such a homophobe?” his wife interjected with something more than annoyance. Then she directly accused him: “You’re such a homophobe.” Then to her friends: “He’s such an old man.”
* Despite having alienated half the nation, Tucker was an adroit politician. His varied circle included the casino billionaire Steve Wynn, the actress and Harvey Weinstein accuser Rose McGowan, the former New Yorker editor and chattering class doyenne Tina Brown, and the Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof — at whose establishment he lost his virginity at the age of fourteen (taken there, along with his brother, by the family nanny at his father’s direction) and at whose funeral he delivered the eulogy (along with porn star Ron Jeremy). It included, too, every journalist on the hunt for Trump gossip, which Carlson was almost always willing to supply with verve and finely calculated indiscretion. He was liked by almost everyone who had spent time with him. Carlson had devoted great effort to his relationship with the mogul son. Over the resentment of Fox managers, he had come to report directly to the largely absent CEO, meaning, in effect, he had no day – to – day boss and had achieved carte blanche to do with his show what he wanted.
* But for Carlson, sitting with boss and friend in the warm Boca Grande night, the breeze coming off the Gulf, there was another equally obvious side to this. If James did succeed, Carlson’s transformative, cometlike success, would abruptly, and ignominiously, end. That had always been part of the strange alchemy of Fox News. It made you — gave you a singular name: Tucker, Hannity, O’Reilly, Megyn — but somehow did not give you a star’s independent life. Megyn Kelly, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Greta Van Susteren, Paula Zahn, Fox superstars, had tried to go somewhere else and quickly faded away. It was a fate that weighed heavily on Carlson — that, in the blink of an eye, he might not be the second – most – famous and – hated person in the country.
His only alternative might be … to run for president.
* But Hemmer was probably gay — at least Ailes thought he was gay.
* [Roger Ailes thought Lachlan and James Murdoch were gay.]
* The Murdochs hated Hannity. Murdoch was an elitist.
* Laura Ingraham, staggering, reeling, her actual drunkenness a superb rendition of exaggerated drunkenness, latched onto Hannity’s sleeve, imploring: “I needja help, Sean, needja help. Needja plane. You gotta plane, doncha? A plaannne.”
Hannity hardly missed a beat, not hesitating, plowing forward, practically dragging her along until he pulled free, and continuing his commentary: “God, gross, her head in the john. Oh, man. These planes are too small for that!”
* Suzanne Scott, the CEO of Fox News, was largely barred from instructing or even talking to the network’s leading prime – time anchors and major moneymakers, Carlson and Hannity — what could she tell them, after all, that their ratings did not already say? It was Scott’s management mantra: don’t fix what isn’t broken. Truly, what else could you say in the face of all that cash flow?
* In the variegated ecosystem of Fox misogyny, Ingraham was derided as a hopeless drunk, a bad drunk, a puke – spewing drunk (Hannity’s account of barring her from his plane had gone far and wide). And, too, that she had thrown herself, drunk or not, at every man in the conservative movement — this since her undergraduate years at Dartmouth, that particular hotbed of conservatism, in the 1980s, where she had first made her reputation. And yet never sealed the deal. (In a story that has long haunted her, she used a garden hose to flood the basement of a boyfriend who jilted her.) She had three adopted children now. She was, in the telling of many men at Fox and throughout a socially unreconstructed conservative movement, gross, pathetic, drunk, and a skank — cue the huge peal of laughter.
* Every on – air woman at Fox was selected for the feminine role she could fill. Ailes was very precise about who he was casting and for what role. Beyond that each woman needed to be not just white, but not ethnic — not to look Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, Greek, or too far from an Anglo – Saxon, Irish, Nordic standard — well – proportioned, long – legged, usually blond and in a hair style that said somewhere other than New York, and generally, to Ailes’s specification, “a former beauty pageant type.”
Each needed to have a more particular sexual – role function. The girl next door. The vixen. The disciplinarian. It was casting.
Perhaps most importantly, all had to rise to what Ailes called “the American blow – job test.” This was a homegrown Ailes theory, which he was pleased to frequently expand upon, about every man’s evaluation of whether or not a woman would give head and with what verve and style (one of his favorite formulations: “To get ahead, you have to give some head”).
…This was part of his belief that his particular news specialty was picking the talent. “News is a variety show,” he offered, harkening back to that favorite form of television programming from the 1960s. “It’s sexy girls and outrageous men. It has to be clear what role everybody is playing — everybody needs to play broad, big, to character. Don’t try to be subtle. This is America.”
* “The look of cable news,” at the time when he launched Fox News in 1996, “was for somebody else. It was classroom stuff. I wanted Fox to look more like daytime television — or like daytime television used to look,” he explained years later. Stubbornly unmindful of the new requirements for how to discuss gender in American culture, he went on, “So the women were important. Their job was to be familiar to other women in a nonthreatening way and yet still to have men want to fuck them — accomplishing both of those things was the vital part. Fox women are not yuppie women or aspirational women or professional women — they’re television women. Game show girls. They come out of the American imagination. Television put them there.”
* “You know, I am not anti – Semitic, and I am not anti – Black, that’s a complete misunderstanding of what I am,” [Tucker] would explain this side of the edge of irony. “I am anti – Catholic.”
…his atavism was a purer kind than that of Fox or Trump. His reached back further, recalling an even more absolute America. The tumble into a diverse, immigrant society began with the Catholics. Yes, take this fight back to the 1920s, when the sides were clear. The great mishmash in which anyone who even on occasion visited a church was broadly subsumed into being a “Christian,” as though this was an uncomplicated designation, was very much, for Carlson, ewww thinking.
This was also taking the fight quite specifically and personally to Fox. While Ailes might have pity – hired Carlson, he was also straightforward in telling him that his future was limited at Fox — not just because he was a conservative who liberals could like instead of inspiring the reflexive hatred on which Fox thrived, but because, simply, he wasn’t Irish Catholic.
* Carlson’s snobbish Protestant conservatism, once the identity of the entire conservative establishment, had been upended by Ailes’s protean right – wing Irish Catholic garrulousness. (Ailes had the furor of a convert — his own moral lapses had been balanced by acceding to his wife, Beth’s, dedicated Catholicism, her uncle the priest often in residence in their guest room.) Fox and Ailes had helped unite Catholics and evangelicals in their crusade against abortion into a shorthand undifferentiated “Christianity.” Carlson was sniffy toward both down – market versions of Christian faith.
* Murdoch, not unlike Carlson, saw the world in ethnicities far more nuanced than the modern brown – white divides. In their world, there was a whole range of white distinctions involving ever finer meaning and standing.
* Liz [Murdoch] went to Vassar, then at the forefront of becoming an unconstrained gay campus (years later Murdoch would still be grumbling about having to pay for a “poofter” school), and emerged in 1990 living with a Black man, Elkin Pianim, the son of a Ghanaian businessman and white Dutch mother, and intending to marry him.
* And then, while pregnant with her and her husband’s second child, she ran off with another man [Matthew Freud].
* Murdoch was increasingly agitated by reports about Carlson’s possible presidential ambition — and the presumption of it. Whatever he might believe about politics, he thought politicians should be politicians.
* Carlson’s opening page is always the sorry state of the nation. For an outwardly jovial person, his is an unrelenting bleak vision, even a dystopian one. There was no happiness in the American soul, neither liberal ones nor conservative ones, he said, beginning to work himself up in the coffee shop. There was psychic misery everywhere. There were no possibilities of fulfillment or contentment because the culture had delegitimized all those things that had once brought fulfillment and contentment. There was a collapse of morality. A topline point that might appeal to the Christian right. But what he specifically meant was honesty, and personal courage, and individual ethos (that is, not sexual or religious propriety) — not too dissimilar from the Ayn Rand – ish right – wing line. But on top of this was a catchall of moral compasses that included novels, poetry, art, Hunter Thompson — this is where you found truth (his wife, he noted, was a great reader). Along with truth, beauty was the issue here. Beauty had been lost — sacrificed. He had always refused to take his children to Disney World, not because, in the manner of Ron DeSantis, it had increasingly liberal values, but because it was … ugly. Disgusting. Disconnected from nature. Plastic. (Of course, Disney’s LGBTQ – positive stand was another break from nature.) His villains were not so much atheists and liberals, but bureaucrats, apparatchiks, the cogs in the machine, and the collaborators with it. That is to say, the establishment: most politicians, corporate anything, the academy, the New York Times , the networks, and even, yes, the Murdochs. The problem with all the above was not their views or politics, but that they were inherently corrupt. Dishonest, unprincipled, bent, with an allegiance to no one and nothing except the expedient and themselves. They stood for nothing. Weak, lily – livered, gutless, craven, grotesque.
* Anyway, this all set the scene and cleared the way, of course, for Tucker himself — the last honest man standing.
* You see, the issue wasn’t merely abortion. It was so much beyond that — meaning he could skip over the prosaic debate and therefore, he, a relativist not to mention wan Episcopalian, avoid the absolutist demands of the argument. No, the true issue was … corporations . (He could easily snatch that liberal issue!) It was the insidious corporate state, with its shadowy means and motives and intentions, that wanted abortions, that advocated such ugliness, that could accept such soul – killing solutions — such final solutions. Corporations were trying to sell lives of anomie, loneliness, lack of meaning, torpor, conformity, Stepfordism — hence, abortion.
Abortion, a life without family, lives without the stability of true roles and true identities — to be precluded from calling a woman a woman! — was all a terrible break with … nature . And, indeed — of course! — it was the liberals, the bureaucrats, the corporate interests, modernity itself that had broken us from our vital connection to all things nurturing and good. The Democrats, and their corporate allies, were making a case against having children (not, mind you, a case about when life begins, or women’s rights, or bodily autonomy), “making a case for devoting your life to some soulless multinational corporation,” making a case against fulfillment and human destiny. “When I hear people say abortion is the most important right we have, I ask myself what are they really saying?” (He swallows here, “I am a pro – lifer just to be completely clear,” because it is not necessarily clear, and rushes on.) “We can debate the issue, and what limits should be put on it” — as though acknowledging at the very least a middle ground, otherwise anathema to most of the people here — “but that’s not really the issue.” He pivots: “We need to take three steps back and ask what they are really saying. The corporations — Citibank, Nike, Dick’s Sporting Goods — these huge companies that are affirmatively promoting abortions — are really saying, ‘it is more important to serve us than to have a family. You’ll be happier as you rise within our company than you would be by having your own children.’”
And nobody among the two thousand Family Leadership Summit attendees seemed to be scratching their heads. Nobody seemed to be aware that this was a bit of bait and switch on their most fundamental issue. That Carlson was expressly not arguing about murdering babies but, rather, was confirming that there was a choice that you could make — family or career — and arguing that he thought family was a better choice. Such was the power of the rhetorician. Everybody was rapt. His story was simply more interesting, more embracing, more modern — and, yes, smarter — than the street soldiers of the pro – life movement and their political yes – men. (Of course, everybody here might leave this hall and ten minutes later say, hey, whatever happened to the bloody cut – up fetus.)
And Ukraine. But the issue was not Ukraine, no way, that was just pure sideshow — the issue was … social media and its manipulation of what was important, urgent, and true . (“Twitter isn’t real. It’s the domain of super unhappy people with empty personal lives and creepy political agendas.”) He absolved himself of any allegiance to Vladimir Putin (“despite what you may have heard”) and instead made his position a resistance to the false flags of social media and its pernicious and creepy hold over the political system and indeed daily life. Ukraine, he declared, in his personal estimation, was on the top of no American’s list of the most important issues facing them. Hence … to resist the rush to support and arm Ukraine was to resist the evils of social media that had put Ukraine on the top of that list. (No head – scratching evident.)
Here was the rhetorical strategy. You might think the issue is this, but in that you have been misled — by politicians, by social media, by corporations, by special interests — and the true story is really this , so much more important, and dramatic, and meaningful, and threatening, and represented by Carlson. And he veered: “The rising price of fossil fuel is not an inconvenience, it is the whole story … Cheap energy, cheap fossil fuel, make the difference between living in the Central African Republic and Des Moines.… If you were to isolate the single largest factor contributing to prosperity, life expectancy, politically placid systems, it would be cheap fossil fuels … Gasoline is autonomy. I get my truck and drive anywhere I want. It’s freedom…
Every issue was elevated to metaphor. If the usual politician’s strategy — indeed, a middle of the road politician — was to avoid commitment, and to preserve wiggle room, with a cotton – mouthed, policy – oriented, as opaque as possible response, Carlson had found a much defter, more enticing way. You made the human condition your true issue and then threw everything into a unified field theory of happiness and unhappiness, of righteousness and corruption.
It seemed startlingly likely that his source material, his ur – text, was from Norman Mailer, of whom Carlson was an avid fan, and who in the 1950s and 1960s, at his most soaring moments of drug and alcohol inspiration, bundled technology, bureaucracy, corporations, the break from nature, the threat to masculinity, and rotten architecture (“bad men make bad buildings, and bad buildings make bad men”) into the prime cause of cancer and left – wing worldview. Indeed, there were many counterintuitive connections between Carlson and the literature of the 1960s — Mailer, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, and of course J. D. Salinger. Carlson might very well, in his prep – school dorm room in the 1980s, found himself in a heady weekend transformed by these writers.
The fact that he was now serving this 1960s lefty, drug and psychiatric culture point of view to the Iowa Christians was both topsy – turvy and for Carlson part of the logic of how far liberal America had spun away from the good. These were all writers whose dubious status, if not formal cancellation, among liberals now, only supported — at least in Carlson’s own mind — his detestation of the modern left and its snobberies, hypocrisies, and certainties. It was, too, it was possible to suspect, on Carlson’s part his own private joke.
Or truly messianic.
* So why would he want to be president?
Because everybody does. That is, every deeply ambitious man (yes, man), still of a certain general mode and vanity and generation, drawn to the promises and interactions of power, impatient with everyone else’s claims that they might know the answers and be better at being president.
Still. Carlson also thought you needed to be “called.” And he was still waiting for the voice to be absolutely clear.
At the same time, he acknowledged that Trump’s 2016 calling — idle gesture, business opportunity, branding exercise, just the obvious contrast to everyone else — changed the spiritual nature of this. Politics and media were the same job, the same life. Running for president was no different than being on television — votes, with only a slight critical adjustment, were the same as ratings. If the Democrats yet maintained some treacly pretense about political process and civil society, the Republicans — part of their new character trait — had wholly thrown pretense away. It was all performance; it was all media — it was all attention.
Carlson had saved his career and reinvented himself as often as anyone in television. If Murdoch, with his last breath, was trying to make Fox his own political weapon (distinct from the political weapon it had become and for which he was blamed), waging an irritating battle for yesterday’s Republican politics; if he was going to die anyway, leaving the network torn between his children; if cable television was itself a dying animal; then the fifty – three – year – old Carlson needed his next move.
Ben Shapiro’s $100 million – plus enterprise was a model; so was Steve Bannon’s War Room ; and Megyn Kelly, Carlson had heard, was pulling down impressive sums from her deal with Sirius Radio. But, of course, there was nothing here remotely on the level of what Fox prime time got you.
So, the question was not if you wanted to be president, but what could be gained by running for president? You became a star because you had the platform and the canny or shameless wherewithal to focus attention on yourself. If you were a star who ran for president, cannily and shamelessly using the world’s largest public platform, might you not make yourself into the largest star ever?
It was a platform world.
Bud: “I always believed that Desantis is a closeted homosexual. The facial expressions, the boots, the snarkiness.”