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Excerpt: Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites
In the CNN host's new memoir, he reveals the strange secrets of what goes on just off camera.- September 26, 2003
The best thing about television news is, it's immediate. Everything at a news network happens quickly. Shows are created, canceled, or moved around with no warning, in response to events that no one can predict. It's a completely fluid environment. If you like fluid environments, it's a great place to work. There isn't much waiting around. It takes years to become a doctor or a lawyer, or even a licensed plumber. I became a talk show host in about twelve hours.
It was October 2000, a month before the presidential election. I was reading the paper at home one morning when the phone rang. It was a producer I knew from CNN. "What are you doing after the Cheney-Lieberman debate tonight?" she asked. I couldn't think of anything. "Want to host a new show?"
Why not? I thought. I'd been covering politics for magazines since I left college. Over the previous few years, I'd also done a fair amount of television, though almost always as a guest. I wasn't sure what being a host entailed, but asking questions sounded easier than answering them. Sure, I said. I'll be there.
That night after dinner, I drove over to the CNN bureau in Washington. Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman had just finished their first and only debate. Outside the auditorium in Danville, Kentucky, flacks from both sides had set up "spin rooms," rapid-response press operations designed to convince the public that their guy had won. Someone at CNN had decided-that very morning, as it turned out-that this might be a good model for a talk show. The name, not surprisingly, was going to be The Spin Room.
The idea was to provide immediate analysis of each of the presidential debates. Bill Press, who was already working at CNN as the liberal cohost of Crossfire, was going to represent the Left. I was going to represent the Right. We'd critique the candidates' performances, as well as interview professional spinners, like Ari Fleischer from the Bush campaign. To pad out the hour, we'd take calls and emails from viewers.
Those were our instructions. At a quarter to midnight, Press and I headed up to the studio. One of the cameramen was sitting on the desk at the Larry King set drinking a Mountain Dew when we walked in. "You got the Reagan chairs tonight," he said. "That's a good sign."
Television networks, like newspapers and magazines, prepare advance obituaries to run when famous people die unexpectedly. To get ready for Ronald Reagan's death, CNN had gone one step further and bought furniture for the blowout coverage it anticipated during the week of the former president's funeral.
These were the chairs. Until now, they'd been in storage. They looked like ordinary chairs to me, but apparently it was considered an honor to use them.
That was comforting, since the chairs were just about all we had. The set amounted to a round, foot-high plywood stage on wheels. The backdrop consisted of a single television monitor on a stand between the Reagan chairs. A graphic in the screen read, The Spin Room. The words seemed to be quivering slightly, the way a videotape does when you hit pause on the VCR.
Not very impressive, though considering the short notice, not bad. But the set wasn't the only incomplete part of the show. The writers hadn't finished the scripts, either. Somehow this news never trickled down to me. It came as a surprise.
Twenty minutes into the show, we returned from our first commercial break. "Welcome back to The Spin Room," I said, reciting the words as they scrolled up from the bottom of the screen in front of me. Reading from a TelePrompTer isn't difficult, but it takes practice. The machine is run from outside the studio by an operator who pays close attention to the host's lips. The faster you speak, the faster he rolls the script. It works well, until you get tangled up in a word while speaking quickly. With the script moving fast, the rest of the sentence is likely to disappear before you can read it. You'll never find your way back.
I was intent on speaking slowly. So intent, it took me a second to notice that the script had stopped moving. Suddenly there was no script at all, just a piece of advice. Motionless in the screen were the words ad lib here.
It took every ounce of self-control not to repeat the phrase out loud. Unsure of what to do-make it up seemed to be the message from the control room-I did my best to look relaxed and unflustered. Then I simply started talking. It worked fine.
Later I was grateful for the experience. On my first night on the air, I'd learned two useful facts about television: Never rely on scripts. ("Ad lib here" is actually pretty good advice.) And when things fall completely apart, attempt to smile calmly and hope no one notices. Usually, no one will.
The rest of the hour was filled with what under normal circumstances would be considered minor catastrophes. At one point, I spent the better part of a minute addressing the wrong camera. In the next segment, I threw to a sound bite that wasn't there. "Take a look at this," I said, pointing my finger at the monitor like a magic wand. Seconds passed. Nothing happened. "Well," I said finally, "let me tell you about it." The moment I began speaking, the tape appeared.
None of it seemed to matter to viewers, who apparently were grateful to see something other than reruns that late at night. The show got CNN's highest midnight rating in memory. The next morning, a network vice president called to offer me a full-time contract. She was enthusiastic about The Spin Room's prospects. If the show continued to prosper over the next two presidential debates, CNN might make it permanent. "This is how Nightline started," she said.
Nightline is famous in television, and not just because it's a good program. Thrown on the air by ABC as a special during the Iranian hostage crisis, the show's ratings grew so large so fast that it never went off the air. It was a network programmer's dream, a tiny gamble that paid off big, as well as an inspiration to the entire industry. Ever since, every one-night-only show on television has dreamed of becoming Nightline.
The Spin Room, alas, never got there. The show lasted less than a year. It did not win shelves of awards (or any, actually). It did not spawn countless imitators. Twenty years from now, I'm not sure who will even remember that it existed. But I will. It was the weirdest, most amusing job I've ever had.
Shortly after we got word that Spin Room was becoming a real show, someone at the network decided that we needed an executive producer to run it. The one we got was named Don. Don had been overseeing Talk Back Live, an afternoon call-in show based in Atlanta. He flew in to meet us.
I wasn't immediately impressed. A middle-aged man with perfectly hairless arms, Don was a veteran of years in local news. Maybe because of his background, he came off as both insecure and pompous, the sort of person who uses long words he doesn't fully understand. Moments into our first conversation, he went out of his way to call Larry King stupid. The point was, Don is a whole lot smarter than Larry King. I doubted it.
If producers were cars, Don would not be considered late-model. Still, he had official-sounding credentials. CNN had paid his airfare to Washington. We took his arrival as a sign of our permanence.
More than anything, we had hopes Don would make Spin Room look better, more network and less cable-access. In retrospect, our naivete strikes me as almost touching. One night early on, Don convinced us to run a video clip of giant pandas. You don't see many pandas on political shows, but a pair of them had arrived in Washington that day, so Don figured we could call these pandas newsworthy. Plus, he explained, "People like to see pandas. They're cute. No one ever changes the channel when pandas are on."
We agreed. Unfortunately, Don hadn't bothered to screen the panda tape before the show.
"Welcome back," I said, returning from a commercial break.
"We've got something a little different for you tonight. A pair of giant pandas arrived in Washington this afternoon. They're a gift from the government of China, a kind of peace offering. Here they are."
Bill and I turned to the monitor. The picture came up. There were no pandas. Instead, there was a shot of a cargo plane sitting on the tarmac at Dulles Airport. "Well," I said, "there's the plane. Apparently, the pandas are inside, no doubt tired from the long trip over the Pacific." I looked at Bill.
"Yep, that's one long flight," he said. "Even longer if you're a panda. No movie, no hot towels. Do you think they get little bags of peanuts on board?"
It went on like this. The shot never changed: A plane. On the tarmac. At rest. I wanted to scream at Don. But the show was live, so Bill and I kept chatting.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, the cargo door under the plane opened, and a metal crate appeared. Two workers slowly lowered it to the ground. Then they walked off. And that was it, the extent of the action. If there were pandas in the box-and we repeatedly claimed there were-I never saw them. After about a minute and a half of this, we dumped out and went to a commercial, smiling the whole time, like it was all part of the plan. The invisible panda plan.
The second we were off the air, Bill went ballistic, holding the microphone to his lips as he screamed at Don. "Hey, Panda Man!" he barked. "I didn't see the pandas you promised. Not one. Not even fur. Where were the fucking pandas?" We didn't pay much attention to Don after that. He spent most of his time in Atlanta. On his occasional trips to Washington, he made the women on our staff nervous. His teeth clicked when he talked, and he told bizarre jokes. He had a disconcerting habit of pointing out people he believed might be Jewish. We didn't miss him when he was gone.
I don't think he missed us, either. Don's main concern seemed to be keeping his job, though it was never clear exactly what that job was. He was known to take naps in his office. During the day he was sometimes unreachable for hours at a time, off somewhere enduring unspecified "dental work." Mostly, he left us alone.
Except, unfortunately, on the air. Don loved chatting into our earpieces during the show. I often got the impression it was the high point of his day. Midway through an interview he'd begin counting us down to the commercial break: "Eight minutes left. Seven-thirty. Seven. Six minutes, thirty seconds." It was odd.
Even more disconcerting was the running commentary. If a guest made a particularly stupid point or wore an unusually ugly tie, Don would comment on it. "That was brilliant," he'd say. Or, "There's a candidate for the rummage sale." He regarded these as droll remarks. I felt like a schizophrenic, doing my best to ignore the voices in my head. It made it hard to do interviews.
If the guest was on the phone, it became impossible. For reasons I never understood, Don's line from the control room over-rode the outside phone line. This meant that while Don was speaking through our earpieces, all we could hear was Don. We had no idea what the caller was saying. Sometimes we could guess. Other times we couldn't.
One night, a man called the show to complain about the way the Florida recount was being conducted. He was angry.
"What I don't understand is why they don't just take those ballots and throw them in the trash. I mean, if ..."
Don cut in. "My, my. Looks like someone should have said 'no' to that second cup of cappuccino tonight. Could be time to switch to decaf." He chuckled at himself, then clicked out. The man on the phone, meanwhile, was still ranting. ". . . is going to mean to Baker? That's what I want to know." I didn't know how to answer. Which Baker was he talking about? Senator Howard? Former secretary of state James? The Reverend Jim?
Ultimately, I decided to go with James. Trying to sound confident, I pointed out that after so many years of distinguished public service, Secretary Baker was just the person to oversee the Bush campaign's recount efforts. And while, yes, Baker was a lifelong Republican, he was also a distinguished statesman, and therefore, if not above the partisan fray, then certainly set apart from it. "Huh?" said the caller, obviously confused. "I'm talking about Baker County, Florida."
If I'd been a little faster, I could have pulled out of the dive before impact: "Of course. But who do you think the county is named after?"
That's what I should have said. As usual, I didn't think of it until after the show. That's the torment of live television. The best lines come to you in the elevator on the way home.
It was a pretty major screwup. To viewers, it must have suggested that at least one of us had a drug problem. (How else could you mistake a county for a retired secretary of state?) We expected to hear from CNN about it. We never did. Nor did we get a response to the panda segment, or to any of the other on-air blunders we were committing with some frequency. Virtually the only time anyone from the network ever called was to inform us that our time slot would be changing. (During its first four months, The Spin Room aired at midnight, 1:00 a.m., 11:00, and 11:30, before finally coming to rest at 10:30.) And that was about it.
We had several theories about this. Maybe CNN executives in Atlanta recognized that a new show is bound to have a rocky start and didn't want to spook us by being critical. Or maybe they were so embarrassed by the whole thing they couldn't face up to their mistake by calling us. Or perhaps they simply weren't watching and had no idea what was happening on the show. Whatever the reason, CNN had given us extraordinary freedom, unheard-of latitude for a daily primetime show. For half an hour a night, we could do just about anything we wanted. So we did.
Our first goal was to furnish the set. The Spin Room a month out looked very much like Spin Room the first night: two chairs, a coffee table, and a television monitor on a rolling metal stand. The effect was Early Dentist's Waiting Room, minus the magazines. It was depressing. We weren't the only ones to notice.
One afternoon a package arrived at the bureau, addressed to the show. Inside was a throw rug emblazoned with the Wyoming state flag, and a note from a viewer: "Hope this helps spruce up the set." That night on the air, Bill waved the rug like a banner. We both profusely thanked the donor by name.
Within a week, CNN responded by giving us a network-sanctioned version, a multicolored patchwork rug from Pottery Barn. (Two years later, I noticed, the rug was still in use, brightening the sets of various weekend shows.) We were grateful for the attention, but by then we didn't need it. We were already swamped with furnishings, all sent by sympathetic viewers. We displayed every one of them on the air, thereby inciting people to send more.
And they did. We didn't realize it at the time, but we'd kicked off what amounted to the longest continuous telethon in the history of television. The charity was the show itself.
Within a month, we needed extra space in the office to store all the donations. There were boxes and boxes of them: books, T-shirts, stationery, photographs, self-published manuscripts, paintings, posters, neckties, bow ties, socks, trousers, stuffed animals, candles, picture frames, ashtrays, pins, flags, puzzles, mouse pads, games, magazines, calendars, CDs, LPs, cowboy hats, poetry, assorted taxidermy, chocolate-covered roaches, a case of Mardi Gras beads, countless spinning tops, and a half-dozen doormats with Hillary Clinton's face on them.
There was also a huge amount of food. The rule in television is, never eat anything that comes through the mail. We had trouble following this rule. In addition to crates of barbecue sauces and canned food, we regularly received platters of foil-covered baked goods. At first we tossed them. By the fourth or fifth batch of brownies, this started to seem wasteful. The cameramen were happy to eat anything we passed on. They survived, so we dug in. One night, Bill and I finished off an entire pound of homemade fudge before the show.
We never found a single razor blade in any of it, though I think both of us regretted eating the fudge. One of our producers later speculated that it hadn't been fudge at all, but something called "Velveeta fudge," the result of a chemical reaction between margarine, Nestle Quick, and Velveeta artificial processed cheese food product. (Combine all three in a microwave, and apparently a substance that resembles fudge appears.) In any case, it settled hard. I haven't eaten before a show since.
Tucker Carlson is the co-host of CNN's Crossfire and a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard. This is excerpted from Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News, by Tucker Carlson. Copyright © 2003 by Tucker Carlson and published by Warner Books. Excerpted with the permission of Warner Books. You can buy Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites at Amazon.com.
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