Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson has been a cable news talking head for 20 years. But he's never been more popular than he is right now as his 2-month-old Fox News show "Tucker Carlson Tonight," which on Monday moves into the 9 p.m. Eastern time period to replace NBC-bound Megyn Kelly. After being chosen by Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of Fox News parent 21st Century Fox, to take over the 7 p.m. slot on Nov. 14, Carlson boosted the ratings 23% year-to-year in December. Carlson, 47, talks about his recent promotion and why it's been years since he's worn a bow tie.
You've been a part of the cable news scene for a long time, and now you're hot all of a sudden. Why do you think that is?
I work for Fox. I put on decent shows that nobody watched because nobody watched the channels I was working for. I'm not being falsely modest. I think I've probably gotten a little better over 20 years. But the network you're on is all important. I know it's true, because I've worked for all of them. Fox News has a big audience, and I'm a beneficiary of that.
A year ago, before the primaries began, you wrote a piece for Politico about Donald Trump's appeal that turned out to be pretty prescient, even though it opened with a vulgar answering machine message he once left you. What did you get about his candidacy that others missed?
I could sympathize with some of Trump's themes. I wasn't sold on Trump the man, that's for sure. But he was saying things that nobody in D.C., where I live, would even dare to consider. He was doing it from a very specific frame — is this or that policy good for the person making 40 grand a year? He was looking at things in a very different way, and I appreciate that. I hunt and fish a lot and so I'm in rural areas a lot. That gets me out of Washington. I was noticing that people I know who live in rural areas were much more receptive to Trump than I ever thought they would be — and to Bernie Sanders, by the way. The answer to that is economic populism resonates because our economic system is not serving a lot of people. And people have become convinced that Washington serves itself. And they're right on both counts. The problem with Trump — and still is — he's so florid and so mesmerizing and interesting or appalling, depending on your point of view — he's just so big as a presence that he tends to obscure what he's saying.
One of the most famous video clips of you is when Jon Stewart told you on CNN's "Crossfire" in 2004 that the debate show was hurting America. Now he's off the air and you're back in prime time. Thoughts?
After a long lull, by the way — there really was a long period where there was no debate on television at all. There were a lot of people agreeing with anchors. I don't find that interesting. I don't think debate is scary. I think it helps people understand what's at stake. I think debate is noble. I think we need more debate, not less debate, and I never understood that critique. When you say debate is bad, you're saying, "Shut up and obey." I'm not into that at all.
Have you ever been converted on a position by someone you have had on a show?
The death penalty, probably. I don't have a lot of sympathy for criminals, and I was reflexively for the death penalty. I got into a debate on the subject and someone delivered a calm and, I thought, pretty thoughtful rebuttal that won me over.
You've been championed by Murdoch since he took over Fox News. Why does he like you so much?
I don't know. I'm grateful that he does. I can tell you what I like about him. He's a newsman. If he asked you what's on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that day, he can tell whether you've read it or not. He's read every story. He's very grounded by newsprint. I like that.
You don't wear the bow tie anymore.
No. That went away more than 10 years ago when I worked at MSNBC. I was walking through Penn Station and yet another person screamed obscenities at me, and I thought, "You know, this is pointlessly provocative." It was one of countless bow tie-inspired confrontations. I'm happy to defend my views. I don't want to have to defend my neckwear every day. People really hate you when you wear a bow tie. I didn't really know that because my wife liked it and my father wore one.
What's behind the hatred?
I think it may have been in the '50s, '60s and early '70s, a lot of pediatricians wore bow ties. People's memories of bow ties are being stared down on by some sadistic doctor who is jamming a needle into your butt. They could never disentangle that memory from me. That's the best guess I've got.